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Continuity and change in leading innovation in universities – opinion

Two of the biggest questions facing the sector as it heads into 2023 are central to the new leadership agenda that has arisen over the last 3 years.  Firstly, they concern how we can best fund our research and support a vision for the innovation eco-system that our nation, economy, communities, and society now need. And secondly, how we can make purposeful lifelong learning equitably accessible in a way that responds to the skills shortages we face and their differential impact on various demographic groups.

They are big questions. And two major review processes that just kicked off will be expected to provide answers before the new year is over. Mary O’Kane’s leadership of the Universities Accord process, and Margaret Sheil leading the review of the ARC, have these big questions to answer as we all collectively reimagine higher education.

The research funding landscape is particularly challenging with both public budgets, and cross-subsidisation from fee revenue, poorly placed to provide answers.  Increasingly the vision of the sector for its research eco-system is one with impact, engagement and commercialisation rising in importance. But there is widespread concern that it must be off off the back of secure and independent pipelines of basic research, re-aligned with new national research priorities.

It is a vision illustrated in the recent launch at UTS of the Australian Quantum Software Network of multiple universities and business partners. Part of the research funding future agenda undoubtedly involves finding new income streams with external partners increasingly seen as part of the eco-system not consumers of it.

Many universities are facing reduced numbers of domestic applicants as we get ready for 2023 admissions. This adds to commencing international student numbers that lag recoveries in the US and UK. We would all like to think these reduced domestic numbers are fully accounted for by cyclical effects. These arise with those finding the ease of employment distracting them from study intensity or signing up for degree education at all.

We might be masking effects within those cycles of the sort of longer-term moves away from full degree enrolment that are playing out in the US system at present, and in recent forecasts. Those trends and forecasts appear to be foreshadowing a reduction in the numbers of full degree applicants and a shift in its nature more towards online study reflecting changes in experiences and expectations in recent years.

What does appear self-evident, is the acceleration towards lifelong learning and a more fundamental rethinking of what job-readiness really means.  All universities are juggling significant faster-paced dynamics here. These are of changes in employer and learner expectations, accelerated changes in future of work needs, and a global reaction against the sector’s inability to deliver to under-represented groups.

A book published last week describes many of these dynamics as indicating the emergence of a new learning economy. This assumes a significantly growing demand for the lifelong educational well-being of global learners, but with growth focused outside of 3-year degrees. What new product and business model innovation will universities make in response?

Such a dynamic situation poses significant challenges for university leaders. These are times that call for compassion in university communities and cultural sensitivity to staff, tired from change. But these times need us all to undertake more change now than ever. It is a time when it is wise to seek to offer clarity more than certainty. It needs us to be deeply focussed on purpose and aligning staff and culture behind it.

We have seen some of the fastest rates of turnover in the senior leadership of Australian universities in the last 3 years.  It remains the most common route that new VC’s are appointed from outside of the institution. It is quite common for new leaders to completely revamp leadership teams, to reset 5-year strategies, and to focus at least as much on the culture they want to create, as the culture they inherit. The extent to which such an approach creates an environment and a climate fit for innovation and change is variable.

UTS is quite possibly unique in having had every new VC in its history appointed from within. The expression of “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” comes to mind and the rise of UTS in various measures of the national system most recently in this year’s ARC Discovery results is self-evident. It is also trying to embrace growth in lifelong learning in its thinking.

The advantages of continuity in leadership from internal appointments are often most evident in the approach of building future strategy and culture from a well-understood standpoint of what it currently is.  It would be unusual for a Senior DVC who had been instrumental in developing a current strategy and setting the current culture to suddenly spring a very different new plan out of their back pocket. They would be unlikely to change their values and beliefs when making a move described as being from the home office to the foreign office.

Continuity can be highly advantageous for culture, during times of rapid change. People welcome knowing where they are heading and it being what they had signed up for. It brings its own challenge to then ensure new ideas are explored and that innovation becomes energised rather than stalled by it.

New blood appointments into the senior team are obviously key. Renewing the gene pool in the key support roles can bring about the same regeneration and innovative thinking as a more turbulent knocking down and starting again approach.

It is often argued that the sign of a great leader is the team of leaders they leave behind. Investing in the diversity, innovation and richness of teams is well served by a strong focus on culture and purpose. But it also requires the head of the foreign office to have a razor-sharp focus on the horizon, the external world, and be more sensitive than others to what is changing and how.

The insights from other global leaders from all parts of our learning economy and research eco-systems, and insights of what these others see next are of critical value in navigating change. They are sometimes difficult to see if you are buried in the bowels of your home institution or context.  It often requires outside help and can benefit from collaborative approaches between universities, their leaders and increasingly commonly, by external partnerships.

As the University Accord process and ARC Review play out in 2023, this ability to hold the home culture and strategy together while being innovative around the big questions that are being explored globally in the extremal environment, will be critical. It is a subject UTS VC Andrew Parfitt and I discussed together on a recent episode of the HEDx podcast that you can access here.

First published in Campus Review on 1st December 2022.
Emeritus Professor Martin Betts, Co-Founder of HEDx