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Something special, even unique, took place this year – an Australian university was recognised by a global award scheme for business nous. That EY Entrepreneur of the Year Australia 2021 judges would choose the CEO of an Australian university was a surprise. It meant a leader from our sector standing alongside EY’s top 40 entrepreneurs as finalists for the EY global awards. Quite unique really.

But it was no accident. This is as much about a CEO as it is about the success of the first new greenfield Australian university for 20 years, built on continuous innovative business leadership for 8 years. It has delivered 128% annual growth in student numbers from a start of 164 students in 2009. This has allowed Torrens University to become the fourth largest provider of international education in Australia.

Torrens does not regard itself as better than other Australian Universities. But it is different – and proudly so. Different in its leadership structure. Different in key aspects of its mission and strategic focus, fuelled by innovation and entrepreneurial nous.

Many of the calls made in HEDx over recent podcast episodes and their accompanying opinion papers have been for innovation, change and differentiation. This has reflected a move away from the broad traditional view of academic leadership in schools, faculties or universities – to one of entrepreneurial innovation and effective transformative change.

There has been a particular call for distinctiveness and clarity in long term-purpose, and then continuity and resilience in pursuing that mission. The experience of the last three years has heightened some of the calls for change.

This is where the Torrens story fits in.

To begin with, in a classic entrepreneurial venture, Torrens University was established as a private university to address a market gap – providing choice, accessibility and affordability to many who would not otherwise have the chance to attend university. A portfolio of specialist education institutions within the university provided choice, guidance, diversity and affordability to students – key to Torrens’ mission to enable economic mobility to its students.

Torrens’ focus on employability for graduates, strong collaboration with industry on curriculum, and innovation around technology, short courses and MOOCs have been key points of difference, and drivers of its success.

When Torrens started, employability was definitely not de rigueur. Today all new courses at Torrens have to be industry “badged” (endorsed) to ensure skills relevance in the workplace.

But there is another aspect of Torrens which distinguishes the university from counterparts in Australia – a leadership structure which is key to Torrens operations and its success. Torrens has a CEO President as well as a Vice Chancellor.

This means the CEO focuses on the market and business stakeholders including shareholders and investors, and the Vice Chancellor works on academic quality and excellence, preparing graduates for work – both working in a unique partnership, shoulder to shoulder. This double header is also replicated at faculty level at Torrens ensuring academic quality and entrepreneurial management work in tandem.

One consequence of this approach is that there is continuity of mission, values and strategy in the university – no matter who occupies the positions. A change in a new head of school, dean or vice chancellor does not lead to a major restructure or plan for the sake of being different. Instead, there is continuity of mission and strategy – which is refreshed, built on and adjusted in response to market and external realities.

While this approach may seem novel in Australia, Torrens does have counterparts internationally – whose journey Torrens could resemble in years to come.

One of the best examples of university strategy and innovation globally has been that of Arizona State University. There, a culture has developed where staff at all levels know what to value. It is a place where senior leaders have grown from within roles and matured into new ones, with a deep sense of the ongoing and continuing purpose of the place and its people. And with a President in Michael Crow now having ticked over 20 years in the role.

The strategy at ASU is innovative, radical, bold and being enhanced continuously through partnerships. The overall charter is enduring but pays attention to external opportunities and change.

Staff, students, and partners have migrated to, and remained at ASU, because of what the institution stands for. There is a great sense of predictability and stability in what it values, where it is heading and how it will get there. It is an environment that takes away an element of stress that can build on staff in our sector as a result of frequent change and uncertainty of where the latest leader might take them. Instead, there is trust in leadership united in a culture built together.

The impact on culture, staff engagement, staff retention, and ultimately institutional performance can be profound with this different approach. Success and morale that has taken decades to build is assured of growing and not being eroded or even broken down.

Academic staff do their best work when they have space to explore ideas, pursue projects, establish collaborations, and grow and nurture students and teams. This approach focussed on continuity can optimise the desirable outcomes.

At Torrens University, despite a sale to a new owner in 2019 and the rigours of pandemic and lockdown, staff morale and productivity held firm. Key to this was the focus on leading the institution with all stakeholders sharing the same mission, purpose and focus, while responding to the pandemic.

There is an interesting apparent contradiction here between the needs for continuity in long term culture and mission, that can endure succession in leaders, combined with transformational change and new business models for the sector in response to the unprecedented change in learning, funding, context and the world of work. This is making the job of current leaders even more difficult at times of transformation and disruption in the sector.

This may well be a time when some leaders can find the empathetic pulse and heartbeat of their underlying institutional ethos and enhance and transform it with purpose and great effect. Others will build new greenfield institutions in that way. Even win awards recognising entrepreneurial verve.

First published in Campus Review on 31st August 2022
Emeritus Professor Martin Betts, Co-Founder of HEDx
Linda Brown, Australian Entrepreneur of the Year and CEO of Torrens University Australia.