Wednesday, October 20, 2010

UNE's strategic positioning

While I was away Thomas, one of my blogging friends, asked me about the latest strategic alliances announced by the University of New England. Thomas is just finalising his teaching qualification at the University of Sydney; his attention was drawn by the deal between Sydney and UNE that formed part of the package.

This is an interesting one in historical terms, as well as in the context of the changes taking place in Australian higher education. It is also important to New England. Our three major universities - UNE, Newcastle and Southern Cross - play a major part in New England life. Their survival and growth is important.

Historical Background

To provide a little historical perspective, when the New England University College was established in 1938 as the first tertiary institution outside a capital city, Australia had just six universities. By the time that New England gained full autonomy in 1954, the number had increased to eight. Depending on the way you want to cut it, this makes UNE either the seventh or ninth oldest university in Australia.

The new university was established as the Sydney University equivalent in the North. It saw its role in Northern terms, in bringing university education to a region that had not had proper access. It also saw its role in terms of facilitating the economic, social and community development of the North. However, it was also part of what it saw as the global and especially British Commonwealth community of universities. Its founders and founding staff had very firm views about the role of the university as a community of scholars.

The institution's early days were not easy. Funding was limited, and it had to struggle to establish itself in the face of indifference and even hostility. In doing so, it acquired a very particular character and ethos that made it a remarkable effective institution for its size. Just to list a few achievements from its first thirty five years:

  • It established a network of adult education activities across Northern New South Wales, bringing further education to areas that had not previously had access
  • It began the process of documenting the North's history and resources
  • It expanded rural studies from community studies through rural science to agricultural economics. This was associated with the establishment of CSIRO research activities part funded in the North and linked to the University
  • It pioneered distance education in Australia
  • It established international linkages in part through its Colombo Plan students, playing an early role in Asian economic development activities
  • It also established an enviable record in the standard of instruction and the results of its students.

In 1982, I returned to the University to do some postgraduate work in history. It was a much bigger place because of the growth in staff and student numbers during the late 1960s and 1970s. While it was still a good university, I found it somewhat insular, even smug. To some degree the sparkle had gone. The need to struggle, to be better, that had marked the earlier university had been replaced by a degree of complacency. I accept that I am generalising, but I couldn't help comparing it with the University of Wollongong, a relatively new university that was then going through the same type of establishment struggles that UNE had been through earlier. The University had also lost elements of its broader regional vision.

As it proved, this complacency meant that the University was ill-equipped to handle the turmoil that was now to burst upon it and that would bring it to its knees. At times, its very survival seemed uncertain. 

Times of Turmoil     

I don't want to go through the full history, although it's a classic case study of the way in which changes in public policy and in the market place can interact with institutional culture and with poor management responses to the point that survival is threatened. However, I do need to point to some key features.

At the time UNE was founded, only a tiny proportion of Australians went to University. The emergence of mass university education in the 1960s and 1970s affected UNE in two ways that were not fully clear at the time.

The first effect was an increase in the number of universities. As a now established institution, UNE's complacency blinded it, I think, to the longer term competitive threat posed by those new institutions. The second effect was a change in course composition, with a significant expansion in demand for vocationally oriented courses.

From a UNE perspective, demand for its largest vocational courses, teaching and education, was in decline because of the ending of the baby boom. The second largest group by number, agriculture related courses, was also threatened by rural decline. However, the University was not able to properly introduce vocational alternatives, in part because it could not obtain official approval and funding for courses such as medicine.

The University was also trying to manage Canberra policy dictates. There was a strong view in Canberra that university size must be increased in the interests of administrative efficiency. Canberra also wanted to remove the previous dual structure of Colleges of Advanced Education on one side, universities on the other.

This was also the period in which the corporate management ethos, the application of models borrowed from the corporate sector but combined with new ideas on public administration, was coming into its first full flowering. This not only conflicted with UNE's collegiate decision making processes, but was antipathetical to deeply held views among many UNE staff about the true role of a university. This resulted in internal conflict that continues to some degree.

In 1989, the University of New England was merged with the Armidale and Northern Rivers Colleges of Advanced Education to form the networked University of New England. Orange Agricultural College was added a little later.

The merger proved to be a disaster: University financial reserves carefully built up under VC Professor Ron Gates were spent on building up up other parts of the network; a new management layer was imposed; while there were conflicts over culture and objectives. In 1993, the network was broken up. Southern Cross University was formed and took over the coastal campuses, while Orange became part of Sydney.

The University of New England was now in a parlous position. It was broke, it had largely lost its coastal feeder areas, and its management had proved unstable. Between the retirement of Ron Gates in 1985 and the appointment of Ingrid Moses as VC in 1997, UNE had had four VCs.

Management problems were to continue, this time centred on the relationship between Chancellor and VC. The appointment of Pat O'Shane as Chancellor in 1994, the first indigenous Chancellor of an Australian University, created difficulties because of her sometimes doctrinaire approach and her willingness to use her power as Chancellor to block. The following Chancellor, John Cassidy, became involved in a fire fight with VC Allan Pettigrew of such venom that it made national news.

While many factors were involved in the fight between Messrs Cassidy and Pettigrew, varying ideas about the role of the University and of the relationships between Chancellor as Chair and VC as CEO were again central. John Cassidy made his position clear early. "This university is a business", he said in his first talk to Sydney alumni, "and must be run as one. That is my job." Unfortunately, skills honed in running one of Australia's largest construction companies did not translate well to a university environment where Mr Cassidy was in fact chair, not CEO.             

UNE alumni, especially those from the earlier period, are a pretty fanatic lot. I can't begin to describe the feeling of despair that swept us as we saw our institution being destroyed. It was in part concern about the sweeping away of the University's past, in part the constant instability as revolving door VCs searched for the new, in part frustration at failed experiments such as the abortive Turkey campus. Most of all, it was the destruction of a place that we loved.

Renewed Stability and new directions     

Ingrid Moses became VC in 1997 and held the position until 2006. The single most important thing that Ingrid did was to provide stability, to start the process of re-building, something that continued under Professor Pettigrew despite the problems between he and Chancellor Cassidy.

The challenges faced by Ingrid Moses were huge. UNE's biggest plus remained its history, its big grduate pool, along with its high student satisfaction rankings. To this day, UNE consistently ranks at the top or in the top of all student satisfaction surveys. However the University was simply tired. Worse, during the turmoil, it had lost its edge as the leading provider of distance education in Australia.

The University's 2002 strategic plan aimed to improve distance education, while improving the number and balance of student enrolments, especially attracting students to the on-campus experience. By the time of the 2006 strategic review, it was clear that the University was struggling to gain internal numbers.

Its key problem was simple. Unlike the US, Australian students generally prefer to go to a local university. Located in an area of stagnant population, UNE was competing against all Australian universities to attract those students prepared to travel for the University experience. Here its own troubles, the very competitive university environment, made life difficult notwithstanding the high student satisfaction rankings.

Poor Ingrid. At one point, and I was probably not alone, I peppered her with emails about directions.

My position, one that I still hold, was that UNE could not compete by adopting the strategies adopted by the metro universities. The immediate student base wasn't there, nor were all the local businesses and funding sources tapped by universities in a commercialised world. To compete in that way was to fail. Instead, the university should focus on its key strength, the fact that it was still a university, still offered a university experience, was not a mass vocational training shop. To this end, the University should maintain courses in arts subjects and languages, should offer a broader experience. The final university might be smaller, but it would offer a special experience. I saw this as the only way of longer term survival.

I extended these arguments during the 2006 review; these posts are listed at the end. In summary:

  1. The university should focus on its role as a university in the traditional sense.
  2. The university reinstate its focus on the broader New England/Northern NSW, not just the Tablelands and Slopes. To this end, it should adopt a conscious policy of alliances with and support for other New England institutions.

There were other things as well. However, the key issue is a reinstatement of the position of UNE as an institution that was both local/regional and global.

I am not pretending that my ideas had any influence. They did not. I am providing them for background.

The New MOUs

The three new MOUs represent the next stage in the evolution of UNE's strategic positioning.

Under current Government policy, all Australian universities are under pressure to increase their proportion of students from disadvantaged backgrounds. Sydney University has struggled to do this. It presently recruits 65 per cent of undergraduates from the eastern suburbs and lower and upper north shore of Sydney. Further, its enrolment of first-year students from disadvantaged schools was below 5 per cent last year.

By contrast, UNE's ethos and feeder area means that it has always had a far higher proportion of disadvantaged students, of students who are the first in their family to go to university. Further, the University has a very good teaching record with such students. From 1938, those students have matched their more privileged Sydney colleagues. UNE has also introduced alternative school based admission procedures in place of the centralised and rigid UAI rankings on which Sydney depends. These, the UAI rankings, automatically favour elite students from elite examination based schools.

As I understand it, the key features of the Sydney/UNE MOU are two fold:

  1. Students can enrol at UNE in certain courses with the recognised understanding that if they pass first year at UNE, they can then transfer to Sydney
  2. UNE will extend its non-UAI school based entrance arrangements to a wider variety of schools, including Sydney.

The benefits of this arrangement to Sydney are pretty clear. Crudely, UNE takes the risks, Sydney gets the students once they have demonstrated performance. But what's in it for UNE? Again crudely, UNE gets more first year students plus attached funding, but also expects to retain a proportion of those students once they have been exposed to the UNE experience.

The second MOU with the University of Western Sydney is easier to understand.

UNE is an expert in distance education. Under the MOU, UNE will effectively function as UWS’s distance provider, as students from UWS will be able to undertake online units from UNE and count them toward their degrees from UWS. This helps UNE, but clearly also helps UWS by widening both the courses and delivery options open to UWS students.

Details of the third MOU with TAFE NSW are less clear. At the launch, The NSW Minister stated: 

“UNE and TAFE NSW have a long history of collaborations - but this MOU will enhance the partnership and provide students with the opportunity to obtain both vocational and tertiary qualifications,” Ms Firth said. “This agreement between UNE and TAFE NSW makes UNE the first dual-sector university in the State.

If I understand this correctly, it essentially widens the opportunity for TAFE students.


From my viewpoint, each of these agreements is consistent with the ethos of UNE. However, we have to ensure that they do not detract from UNE's position as one of Australia's few, true, universities. 

Newspaper Reports:

UNE Strat Planning Posts


Thomas said...

Thanks for looking at this in detail Jim. I was mindful of your and what you might think about it when I first read the article because you know the in's and out's of UNE and an understanding of rural education.

I wonder what UNE anticipates the retention of their first year students might be? And how much of an increase in applications it might get as a result from the deal.

Will be very interesting to watch unfold.

Jim Belshaw said...

Hi Thomas. It is very interesting, but also very diffficult to know without knowing the exact rules to apply. For example, to what extent will entry arrangements be open to external as compared to on-campus students? I have assumed that the arrangements will be only open to a selected group of full time new students.

On the supply side, the students have to be slotted into second year places at SU created through the normal process of attrition. Further, they have to start enrolled into exiting UNE courses that will mesh with existing Sydney courses. So there has to be a limit on the numbers.

On the demand side, some students who would have gone to UNE anyway will now have a new option, so UNE may lose some of its existing students. In terms of the regional student catchment, UNE could well pick up more North Coast students.

To my mind, the real sleeper is Sydney students. Spending one year away from home may well be an acceptable price to pay to be able to do something at home not otherwise open to them.

All universities, SU included, face major problems with student drop-outs. The really clever thing about the arrangement from an SU perspective is that it gets a defacto first year intake with a guaranteed non-drop out. All the first year drop-outs will appear in the UNE stats!

Two groups will stay with UNE and not go to Sydney. Group one is students who fail in whole or part but wish to continue. Group two is students who really enjoy the UNE life, make friends etc and decide not to move on.

I don't have access to current UNE stats, although I might be able to find them out. My best guess would be that of 100 students who enrol under these arrangements, around 10% will drop out entirely, another 10-15% may fail a subject and not transfer for that reason, while perhaps 20% will stay with UNE by choice. So for every 100 students that enrol, SU might finally get perhaps 60.

Motivation is a very important factor. We know from experience at UNE with students from what are now called lower socio-economic backgrounds that they can be very highly motivated; that will affect numbers.

In all, I don't expect numbers going to SU to be high over the first few years. The real sleeper in all this is Sydney, not rural students. It may well be that the greatest impact from an SU perspective is a cost-effective way to increase the number of disadvantaged students from Sydney's western suburbs.

Anonymous said...

An intriguing analysis Jim. It will also be interesting to see what shifts the 2012 policy changes bring. Sandra

Jim Belshaw said...

Hi Sandra and thanks. I suspect that you are closer to the stats than I am. What price the drop in international student numbers! I must revisit your earlier piece.