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Sharpening Works, to a Point

Author: Martin Betts | As seen in Campus Review

Thank goodness that it’s nearly all over. I don’t think 2020 is going to be remembered as one of anyone’s favourite years, is it?

It started OK, with some sense of optimism, despite the aftermath of last summer’s bushfires. But it quickly came to be dominated by a great upheaval, the likes of which most of us, and certainly our universities, had never seen before.

The response has been amazing. How our staff managed to transition as quickly as they did has changed our mindsets for ever. Last week’s TEQSA data, on how it was for our students, clearly outlines many limitations with the experience that most would prefer to avoid, but there were many times during 2020 when the outcomes we achieved looked impossible.

And so, how are we positioned, and what shape are we in, as we leave our Zoom meetings for the last few times, and try to put all of that behind us? We have learnt so much about ourselves, our colleagues, institutions and students. We have built resilience and capability, in technology and pedagogy, and new ways of communicating and collaborating. And we made it to the end.

For some of us it is a shocking end, as so many trusted, loyal and expert staff who served the sector for so long leave the work of higher education for some little while, if not forever. We would all have wished that there were better circumstances and ways in which to recognise and farewell them.

And what shape are our universities in? They have certainly trimmed sails to a greater extent than ever before. The extent of job losses, organisational change, and adoption of new processes are unprecedented in how they will change our universities. We have never reduced course profiles, re-focused research areas, or changed campus operations and support activities to anything like the same extent that we have in 2020.

Some have likened this to a sharpening of our university strategy, rather than a repurposing or transformation. That was the term Western Sydney University VC and the former chair of Universities Australia, Barney Glover, used in our HEDx podcast last week.

But what does sharpening mean, and will it work? If we were blunt, and had a broad base to how we operated at the start of the year, we will have certainly whittled away some of the breadth and weight of our operations as 2021 gets under way.

If sharpening means having greater focus and precision in how we look for performance and outcomes from those that are still on deck, we might be mirroring the sort of drives for productivity improvement that have driven corporate innovation for some time.

Sharpening works for some tools but not for others. The phrase that if “all you have is a hammer then everything looks like a nail” is often used to encourage us to recognise multiple tools are needed to get complex, diverse and unpredictable jobs done.

We are starting to see some of our universities apply some more substantial variations to how they will engage students in 2021. Murdoch’s commitment to a “STEM everywhere” model as a response to the trimming of chemistry, physics, mathematics, statistics and economics courses and majors is a significant sharpening for sure.

Deakin’s new 10-year plan has big ideas around co-design of programs with industry, seamless blending of online and face-to-face delivery, improving access and anticipating social and economic trends, and exploring transnational and stackable short courses, which are all ways of continuing to refine tools that have served Deakin well in recent times. And replacing all lectures by the end of 2021 with 10-15 minute “Curtin talks” videos is certainly a significant sharpening of the tool most academic careers and student experiences have been based on for generations.

But are these really new models or new tools, or tinkering, albeit pretty big changes, to the one model of education that we all broadly follow in the same way, despite the differences in our context and the communities we serve.

Maybe the first new university in the UK for 40 years with the launch of the London Interdisciplinary School is a new tool in the toolkit. It makes a commitment to overcoming the barriers that discipline groups, formed around areas of research expertise rather than student needs and the requirements of future workplaces, places on the way we develop and deliver educational programs. It is looking for all students to pursue a single Bachelor of Arts and Science and will promote learning through “real-world challenges” and includes knife crime in a list of potential topics. Be careful with sharp objects.

Or does the sale of Torrens University for close to $1bn at a time when mainstream public universities have never felt less valued show the way other tools in higher education can get the job done better, however sharp we make the tools we have been using. And is anyone still watching what happened with those Google career certificates launched mid-year, to gain work skills, for $400 a time?

The most impressive of the many wise messages that Barney Glover shared in HEDx episode 12 was the confidence in flexibility that all universities have acquired. That is real. We have learnt we can do things differently, under pressure.

This has undoubtedly been the real annus horribilis, with apologies to ‘The Crown’. But the biggest challenge might actually still be in front of us. It will be whether we can learn to apply that acquired flexibility, to use new tools and build new models in 2021 that are attuned to the continuing and growing dynamic.

The dynamic is based on how other competitors respond, only some of whom we currently know about. It is based on how student and employer expectations have changed forever. And it is based on technology, strategy, culture and experiences in global universities that will never be the same again. The trick will be making sure we really change our universities, and change for good.


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