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Planning a university for 35 years time

Many Australian Universities appear to be in short-term financial crisis right now. The perfect storm of soft domestic demand, slowly returning international students, impacted investment income, and rising costs are all combining to make financial pictures the most challenging for some time.

Avoiding a downward spiral and seeking new revenue sources is gaining prevalence. Some appear to be asking themselves how to change their long-term prognosis.

Looking in from the outside, it is tempting to ask whether we have 40+ frogs in a soon to be boiling pan, all starting to feel the heat of the moment. If that is their predicament, what are they going to do about it?

The messages coming out of US universities and their broader eco-system are also challenging.

Enrolment decline, questioning of product value, and mounting student debt particularly of non-completing students are bringing about much pre-occupation with short term survival and fixes from which it is hard to lift the head towards the horizon.

And in the UK and much of Europe, the short-term cost of living challenges, and the aftermath of a post-pandemic reset and budget repair, are making many leaders focus more on near term priorities than be able to really look much further ahead.

In these global circumstances, in marked contrast to the Soviet-inspired pre-disposition to plan in five-year cycles, the University of Waterloo in Canada has paused and taken stock for the very long term.

With the help of extensive consultation with the internal and external stakeholder communities, Waterloo has imagined how, as a world-renowned industry engaged university, it might reconceive its programs, research and external partnerships.

It has done so to reposition where the university is heading for the long term and how it will get there.

In last week’s HEDx podcast we talked together about the new strategy recently developed for Waterloo at 100, a time 35 years from now.

Waterloo sees the institution enhancing the goals it measures itself by, and changing culture internally and in the broader eco-system, to make achieving those goals possible.

And if that means changing the way research is measured and valued, and the relationship with university rankings, so be it.

Waterloo is doubling down on its founding principles as industry-engaged to commit even harder and further to a cooperative model of workplace-based educational experiences.

These reflect the founding principles of its original industry backers and reconceives them for a different global future.

As an institution, it is thinking beyond narrow concerns with impact rankings in its deep commitments to such crucial global phenomena as sustainability.

It is thinking of a wider range of dominant prevailing global challenges for the 35 years ahead. It is seeing itself as a university for the future.

In doing so it is overcoming the limitations of discipline-bound academic structures to build interdisciplinary teams and culture.

These would allow it to more effectively research wicked problems related to grand challenges in partnership with industry.

It is having to take on internal and external cultural challenges in making this work.

The university has always been industry engaged. It has values, a brand and many initiatives in entrepreneurial activities that reflect that.

But telling its staff it values, and will promote them for, applied work is hard to make stick when the broader eco-system offers conflicting cultural symbols around research. It does so through measures such as citations and journal impact factors.

These are typically prioritised in the wider environment over industry engagement, for example.

This is why Waterloo adopts a critical and detached view of the importance of ubiquitous and misaligned drivers that lie behind university ranking.

And it is why Waterloo is considering signing on to statements such as the Declaration on Research Assessment or DORA.

It sees these as in contrast to measures of industry engagement and support more central to its brand position and mission.

There is great value in overcoming the isomorphism that drives all our institutions to look ever more like each other.

There is great merit in deriving a distinctive mission, learnt from a university’s founding principles, and to revisiting and reaffirming that with the conviction that can arise from an occasional longer and deeper look at where an institution is and where it wants to be heading.

Waterloo has now completed this with a fundamental and longer-term re-evaluation of where it is heading in the next 35 years.

It is ground-breaking as a strategic planning exercise in a world of ubiquitous short-term planning. That short-termism can feel like a treadmill sometimes to many who work in our sector.

There is merit in more universities considering how to look beyond the five-year planning cycle in re-examining their purpose and commitment.

It is even more important at times of global challenge and change than when things are relatively stable. It is a planning mindset particularly suited to these times in many parts of the world.

It allows the broader set of issues of demographic and geopolitical change to influence what we do and build responses to them.

We might expect more examples of that approach to strategic planning to emerge.

With less than one month until the Universities Accord review panel in Australia submits an interim report to the minister, how much of our Accord submissions and ideas have come from positions of immediate and short-term need from close to the current situation?

And by contrast, how many of them have come from longer-term blue-sky reappraisals of positions and missions informed by global perspectives and out of sector thinking?

In Australia right now, it would be beneficial if what is left of the last month of our Accord review took one last long look at ideas from further afield and from a longer-term perspective.

After all, isn’t that what the Accord was meant to be about? And it is what future learners, staff and university partners really need right now.

First published in Campus Review on 5th June 2023.
Professor Martin Betts, Founder of HEDx
Professor Vivek Goel, President and Vice Chancellor of University of Waterloo, Canada