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The current period is one of many dilemmas for all universities. They are celebrating newly busy campuses again without knowing how long students and staff will stick to them. They all missed providing face to face social interactions, which are novel now. But can they be sure students will depend upon them for the long term in quite the same way again? They are shifting their focus back to physical environments and facilities. But are they sure they know what their virtual environments should become in the medium term and what their hybrid balance should be?

In addition to the pandemic, they have a changing policy environment that adds further uncertainty. Like most universities, Flinders is committed to research that delivers real impact, leaning-in not just to commercialisation but also industry-engagement where its expertise helps accelerate Australian businesses. But the current Government’s approach to universities makes it difficult to know how universities will fund basic and applied research in the long-term and how the research-teaching nexus will be maintained at the institutional, discipline and individual levels?

They are aware of the calls for and the desirability of differentiating and being distinct while juggling how regulation and funding drives them all to be similar. At the same time, the spectre of institutional mergers has raised its head again. Politicians in New Zealand have questioned whether there should be a single University of New Zealand, the idea of a merger in WA has been recently rebooted and the new Premier of South Australia has plans to establish a University Mergers Commission to review the tertiary sector. What universities do – and how they do it– appears to matter to some of our politicians at least.

The dilemma of maintaining a commitment to busy campuses or not, being hybrid or not, seeking both research and teaching excellence or not, and staying in our current broad size and shape or not, are all valid questions but they are met by similar responses from virtually every Australian university right now. One could argue that regulations, markets and funding formulae conspire to drive them all towards uniformity. Our universities work tirelessly to innovate within these constraints, but real differentiation requires the freedom and flexibility to explore new territory. Meanwhile, the competition appears to be how well they do what they do, and how well they tell their story.

For university leaders this creates a complex need for agility and flexibility. To lead campus renewal, making the best of so many sunk assets, while being prepared to embrace digital innovation as it increasingly dominates the educational experience, much as it dominates so many other aspects of our modern lives.

Pursuit of the dual goals of comprehensive research and teaching excellence remains a challenge, and there may be a time when some choose to focus and specialise within and between them.

Yet while the omnipotent internet may be changing how we access education, it is not altering its purpose. As Einstein once said, “Education is what remains after what you’ve learned has been forgotten”. The purpose of education is not the mere sum of the facts you once learned, rather it is development of the ability to assimilate, integrate and interpret information in order to draw new inferences and ask new questions. What better environment to learn such skills than a university in which researchers pursue ‘ungoogleable’ questions every day? Universities that deliver a genuine nexus between research and education will prevail by developing graduates who are prepared for anything.

Flinders University prides itself on its student-centred approach and leads the nation in postgraduate employment. But while education outcomes are improving it is also growing its research capability at pace. Research income has increased by over 70% in the past four years and looks set to grow again this year. Meanwhile, active engagement strategies with industry have helped to attract new partners, especially within the thriving Tonsley Innovation District. Once a derelict site of a former car plant, Tonsley has grown quickly with almost 70 companies and organisations employing more people than when Mitsubishi built cars there. It’s a great example of the role a university can play in stimulating economic renewal.

In addition to developments at Tonsley, Flinders is investing in research infrastructure in health and medicine and expanding its CBD presence in Adelaide with a new vertical campus at Festival Square. These developments and others will ensure that Flinders continues to deliver against its ambitious agenda.

Competition and jockeying for position is common in other sectors in seeking reputation, market position, and market share. It is also a common response to an environment of possible mergers and acquisitions. The competitive and structural dynamics of our universities may have never been so turbulent. Institutions must play to their strengths as they compete in terms of reputation, market position and market share. Clarity in goals and brand position, coupled with strong and consistent leadership are all key elements of success.

There is a danger of course that the threat to current positions may come from beyond current universities and that rather than mergers of comprehensive universities around geography, the more likely outcomes will be disaggregation and transformation of the current comprehensive university business model and closer associations with partners offering other skills and capabilities.

In these circumstances a clear position, strategy, culture, story and leadership, that goes beyond being lost, in the words of Matthew Flinders, “in the unnoticed middle-order”, is a well-prepared route though the current impasse. And it may well be the best way of preparing for an ambiguous future. It is the fearless route that has helped Flinders rise from any congested and contested middle ground more noticeably than most others.

And was the focus of our conversation on the HEDx podcast together in last week’s episode you can listen to here.

First published in Campus Review on 6th April 2022
Emeritus Professor Martin Betts, Co-founder of HEDx
Professor Colin Stirling, VC and President of Flinders University, Adelaide

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