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A survey launched last week in London, by the National Centre for Entrepreneurial Education, reported on the priorities for UK higher education leaders as they emerge from the pandemic. It reported that the greatest challenge involves predicting the longer-term scenarios for the sector. The main opportunity was seen to be accelerating change. It also reported that 80% of UK university leaders think either significant changes or a complete overhaul in modes of teaching are required to overcome financial pressures.

These issues caused by changed expectations of staff and students are not dissimilar to the situation facing university leaders in Australia with the added dimension of policy changes creating increased uncertainty around future business and operating models for the sector.

Times of change in consumer demands or student expectations, or in policy shifts that disrupt current business models, create winners and losers. Experience from other sectors suggests the winners are those that see the changes early and move swiftly.

The stories of entrenched big companies looking to protect current positions, and ignoring disruptive opportunities, include those in mobile telephony and photography. Nokia, for instance, was unwilling to let go of large sales and profits from its mobile phones, despite having a similar opportunity as Apple to develop an iPhone and its associated app stores. Kodak was profiting so much from the photographic film processing business that it failed to take advantage of its capability in digital camera technology at a time long before the emergence of Instagram.

Some large organisations have used their size as an advantage to thrive in dynamic times. Others have suffered because they have not recognised the need to change early enough, or they have been deterred from implementing long-term strategic change because of their current position of strength in a market. An enduring lesson from these examples is that the toughest competition often comes from smaller, more nimble entrants to the market, who are difficult to recognise because they are not current competitors. The implication for our universities is to take advantage of their reputation and brand position but be open to change, and to expect competition from unexpected sources.

The University of Queensland (UQ) is widely recognised as one of the best performing universities in Australia across a range of metrics, including teaching quality, graduate employability, research impact, research commercialisation and philanthropy.

I recently sat down with UQ’s Vice-Chancellor and President, Professor Deborah Terry AO, to discuss a range of issues, including the release of the University’s new 10-year strategic plan. It’s an ambitious document that contains a detailed set of short- and long-term goals aimed at improving the student experience; increasing UQ’s impact in research and innovation; and enriching the community.

To achieve those goals, UQ will need to leverage its successful history in education and research, but it will also require a much broader university-wide commitment to operational and cultural change.

Consistent with the national focus on building Australia’s innovation ecosystem as we emerge from the pandemic, the UQ strategic plan includes an important focus on research commercialisation and government and industry partnerships.

Another priority identified in the 10-year strategic plan is dynamic change in the University’s teaching and learning agenda. The disruption of the international student market and the sudden shift to online teaching through the pandemic have served to highlight new opportunities for hybrid delivery models and the re-design of trans-national education programs.

At the same time, the changing nature of work and workplaces has really confirmed the need for lifelong learning programs. This, too, is reflected in UQ’s new strategic plan, which has a focus on deep industry engagement in the development of teaching content, credentials, short courses and degrees – to ensure that its educational programs respond to shifting industry and workplace needs.

What will ultimately distinguish those that thrive at times of disruptive change is making these forms of innovation and change central to their long-term plans, innovating early and strongly enough, and sticking with it. This will take leadership, a strong culture and clarity in long-term strategy.

When UQ was reaching the critical point in the development of its strategy in 2021, it helped that strategic insights were crowd-sourced through an online ‘Strategy Jam’ that gave all staff a voice. And, in an additional dose of good fortune, the announcement that Brisbane would host the 2032 Olympics encouraged the adoption of a longer-term, 10-year strategic view.

The result is an exciting, long-term strategic vision that builds on the experiences of accelerated change through the pandemic – and that commits the University to continual change in order to sustain excellence and broaden its impact in education and research.

By committing to be different and innovative, UQ is daring to not follow the patterns of the past by sticking with what they have always done and how they have always done it. History lessons from Kodak and Nokia suggest this is wise. The winners in higher education’s future will be those that embrace change, start early and take a long-term view.

It will call for outstanding broad-based leadership and a culture conducive to innovation and persistence. To hear more about how UQ is framing its strategic response to these challenges, I would encourage you to listen to my conversation with Professor Terry captured recently for the HEDx podcast series here.

First published in Campus Review on 25th March 2022
Emeritus Professor Martin Betts, Co-founder of HEDx

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