Wednesday, February 13, 2008

Storms gather over UNE colleges

Photo: Lightning above Drummond Smith College

Sometimes I despair about my old University, I really do!

I heard from ABC news that proposals by the University of New England to lease its residential college system to private enterprise were to be discussed at a public meeting in Armidale.

The university stated that it would take about $22 million to fix longstanding maintenance problems, something it could not afford to undertake itself.

Then on 7 February ABC news reported that the university had promised widespread consultation over several months before making a decision following a public meeting attended by more than 300 people to hear details of the proposal.

Before going on, oh ABC, since when was Armidale in north western NSW? As a colleague commented, he has heard Tamworth referred to as far north west!

The university repeated that it could not afford the $22 million it would take to refurbish its colleges at a time when occupancy rates are declining.

Vice-chancellor Professor Allan Pettigrew defended what critics say is the failure of the UNE to consult more widely with the college community.

"We're in a position where we're preparing draft documents at the present time. They have to be considered by the appropriate committees and the university council itself. We haven't reached that stage yet," he said.

The meeting organiser, Rosemary Leitch, who is a senior common room member of Earle Page College, was critical of the university.

She believes (correctly) that it had not consulted the wider community before beginning the development of plans.

What those at the meeting were probably not aware of is that UNE's move comes at a time when both the Universities of Sydney and NSW are in the process of finalising plans for major expansions in college facilities to enhance the on-campus experience.

Now it may be that UNE has let cyclical maintenance slip to the point that it is now between a rock and a hard place. It would not be the first organisation to do so. Indeed, it has done so before! However, the thing that stands out to me is the continuing failure of the university to capitalise on what should be one of its greatest assets, its residential system.

The reasons for this lie deep in UNE's past and centre on the nature of the relationship between the University and its colleges.

UNE developed its colleges to provide residential on-campus accommodation. This was necessary, but the colleges were also seen as central to the University experience. Even those living in town such as myself were required to be affiliated with a college, in my case Wright College.

The formal trappings of the colleges - senior common rooms, junior common rooms, tutorial systems, masters - were drawn from Oxbridge. However, they were not given independent governance, but instead were treated as residential arms of the university.

As I argued even back the sixties and seventies, this was a fundamental error because it prevented the colleges developing a real independent presence including access to external funding sources, leaving them dependent on changing attitudes in a central university administration often pre-occupied with short term problems.

Wright and Drummond Colleges can be taken as examples.

Wright was threatened with closure in the eighties because residence numbers had dropped, maintenance costs were up. This was fought off for a period, but only for a period. Finally, the costs of full refurbishment were seen as too great, and the college was closed to the great distress of its alumni.

In Drummond's case, the college was closed because of a decline in student numbers, then re-opened, then merged with S H Smith House to form Dummond and Smith College.

I am well aware that part of the colleges' problems lay in changing student attitudes to accommodation, including a desire to live of campus, as well as needs for new types of accommodation. I am equally well aware of the nature of college costs, including the fact that they can bleed money should student numbers drop below break-even. My point is that poor governance arrangements contributed to the problems.

My wife is chair of council at Sydney University's International House. I go to many of its functions as handbag.

International House faces many of the same problems as UNE's colleges. It, too, is formally part of SU in a legal sense. It, too, faces challenges in attracting students, in deciding what to outsource (catering has in fact just been bought back in house because complaints about standards had begun to affect student numbers), in achieving viability with a relatively small number of residents. But what a difference a council makes!

IH's council is no cipher. It approves budgets, oversights finances, plans IH's future, negotiates with the University, helps sell the IH story. It provides both continuity and a structure that maintains involvement by others - alumni for example. The IH Director reports first to council.

Now compare this to UNE. There, as I suggested, the colleges are no more than subservient units of the central administration. They do have their own character and systems, don't get me wrong on this, but they have never had a chance to carve out a real independent role for themselves.

Back in July and August 2006 when I was trying to make some suggestions on UNE's strategic plan, I made two points relevant to the current discussion.

Point one was UNE's unique residential character. I have returned to this point a number of times. UNE is still a university, not a big degree shop. This is reflected in the way the place consistently scores high on student satisfaction ratings. I suggested that this was a key marketing strength that UNE must maintain.

Point two was the potential role of the college system in marketing UNE if the place could but take advantage of it. UNE has held on one, but gone back on two.

In all this, UNE's consistent mismanagement of its colleges over decades may now have reached the point that the college asset has been lost. If so, I hope that the administration has at least done its financial modelling properly.

There is no such thing as a free lunch.

Outsourcing, public-private partnerships, come at a cost. Private participants must earn at least a market return on their money. This comes from improvements in efficiency because of the private sector control, from payments by the agency to the private partners, or some combination of the two.

It may be that UNE has got to the point that it has to take the money now, paying the price later. If so, it might take a lesson from social housing in NSW.

Ten or so years ago, cut-backs in housing funding led to a decision to spend available funding on leasehold instead of capital properties. This did allow many more properties in the short term, meeting immediate needs. Today with funding still tight and rents through the ceiling, NSW is struggling to maintain the number of leasehold properties.

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