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Do we have the numbers for next year?

Author: Martin Betts | As seen in Campus Review

The end of one annual university cycle typically sees numbers become clearer about what the next will bring. Grants are awarded, promotions decided, targets set in performance plans, after details are confirmed of outcomes in the year just ended.

Other numbers that get locked in are budgets. And we get the latest first preferences, for programs we marketed to prospective students, in local catchments and around the globe.

The sizzle reels of achievements are full of numbers. They measure how wonderful our university has been, often with a focus on rankings, with emphasis on those we do well in. We really like the methodology they use.

The humble brags about graduate employment and starting salaries for some get offered up against the research rankings and ARC grants of others. And we all present our case of having had a great year. And we use that to justify keeping on the same path. And the notable few are picked out for special mention in VC Excellence Awards. We present them as role models for how we can all do the same things, but even better next year. Does that work I wonder? And how is it perceived this year?

Because this year is different. The numbers turned out to be nothing like we expected. We were working on very different values, for the same old measures, as we recast budgets. We made significant reductions in staff numbers and non-staffing expenditure. Numbers of course offerings and research areas fell more than ever before.

The old numbers have started to look a little better. Deficits are slimmer than feared in many cases. The outcomes of change management plan consultations saw some job loss totals reduced. And as we heard in our latest HEDx podcast interview with John Griffiths, the CEO of the Queensland Tertiary Admissions Centre, domestic demand has continued to grow, as it did in mid-year. And the impacts of Job Ready Graduate package funding cluster changes between disciplines is yet to fully play out.

So, it was only a road bump after all? And the new normal is not so different? Is that right?

The impact of 2020 on our current numbers might be less dramatic than our greatest fears. But we underestimate the effect on the culture, experiences of our communities, and future markets, at our peril.

The trouble with numbers, and the way we use them, is that they tell us most about what has just happened or is about to, and how it compares with the past. Few of the numbers we use tell us where we are heading, and what the future holds. And we typically have numbers about stuff that is easy to measure rather than what we need to know about.

This was all of little consequence when the sector was stable and not facing a burning platform of imminent disruption. But haven’t those days passed?

After the year we have had, the future health of our institutions might be best measured by our strategic agility, the experiences we can offer to meet new staff, student and partner expectations, and our culture and its capacity for collaboration, innovation and change. These are the measures we advocate for in the HEDx Strategic Health Check we recently published at

It is not surprising we have not focused on those numbers so much before.  And the crisis we have just managed needed our unrelenting focus on getting to where we are now. But refreshed university leaders at the start of 2021 might look for the numbers that make more difference to the future. If we don’t have those numbers, will we be flying blind?

In our interview with John, we saw evidence of the growing trend toward online study and micro-credentials. But global data shows markets for new forms of learning growing much faster than here. Indeed, there is increasing evidence that the attractiveness and value of a university education is being seriously questioned, particularly for postgraduate education, and most markedly in management and commerce areas of study.

But it is the data, or lack of it, about our staff that concerns me most. We have measured how many we will have, how much they will cost, what we expect them to achieve next year, and what new organisation structures we have placed them in. But what if we knew how they feel, what they need, how to support them, and what the impact of this year has been on their capacity to flex and lift again next year?

I love numbers. As an engineer, I spent most of my career in universities focussing on markets, and the money. I see great merit in data, trends, forecasts, and planning. But as a leader of academic and professional staff, I was acutely aware of the importance of culture, in plans being realised, and numbers attained, through collaboration and innovation.

What if we had rewarded excellence this year by recognising how everyone in our universities responded to the events of March by moving all classes online, continuing to engage students, and salvaging retention and reputation, and by giving over their own homes to their institutions, rather than picking out a dozen or so heroes? What would that have done for culture?

What if we encourage our people next year by recognising that they all can contribute in different ways, and have parts to play in collaborative team environments? Would we do better to recognise that overall performance can’t always be realised through individual metrics, that we endlessly escalate, and set unrealistic expectations of?

And, what if we recognise that future students have changed their expectations and behaviours permanently, and have completely different needs for equitable access to life changing learning and reskilling opportunities? What numbers measure those expectations and our responses to them?

I take some comfort in the numbers John Griffiths shared with us in the podcast about the coming admissions round. I really hope things turn out well for the start of the year. But imagine if we turned our attention to new numbers at this time of disruption. Imagine if we had insights into and plans for improving the way our staff can respond as we ask them to lift and go hard early next year. Ultimately, they will be the numbers that will really make a difference once 2021 is underway. It’s a new start after all.


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