Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Belshaw's World - Negative message hinders university

Note to readers: This post appeared as a column in the Armidale Express on 15 December 2010. I am repeating the columns here with a lag because the Express columns are not on line. You can see all the columns by clicking here for 2009, here for 2010

As I read the story by Craig Schneider (University to face grim times: Vice-Chancellor, AE 8 December) reporting on Professor Barber’s speech to the Armidale & District Chamber of Commerce, my heart sank.

The University of New England has a remarkably loyal group of alumni. They would have to be to still hold the faith after all the things the University has done to them.

Over the last thirty years, we have seen the University lose sight of its own past and traditions. We have lived through the networked university when it came close to collapse, losing all its reserve funds. We have lived through a fight between Chancellor and Vice Chancellor that pushed the University onto the national front pages for all the wrong reasons.

During this time we have seen multiple new strategic directions, multiple cultural changes processes, multiple marketing initiatives, all couched in the language of modern management speak. When Professor Barber speaks of the need to re-examine UNE product, its markets and its business processes, he is following in the steps of his predecessors.

This column is not an attack on Professor Barber, nor on the detail of his proposals. I do not know those well enough to comment. Indeed, I doubt that many alumni do, for the University has not been especially good in communicating to its broader support base. Instead, I want to look briefly at the challenges that the University faces and make a few suggestions on possible responses.

To begin with, Professor Barber is correct that the University faces a fundamental challenge. It is not alone in this.

Australian universities as a whole are declining in the global pecking order. In saying this I am not talking about the pecking order on the various international rankings that so obsess some. Rather, I am talking about the chat I see on web sites and blogs.

In a recent discussion on one of the leading Australian blogs, the theme was that there were no Australian universities left that could hope to match it with an Oxford or Cambridge. They had become second rate mass degree shops, unable to provide the type of education that was once available here.

I argued during the discussion that, by happenstance, UNE was still a university in the true sense, drawing supporting comments from other alumni.

You may dismiss all this as chatter, but it is more fundamental than that because it affects future attitudes.

In recent years, international full fee paying students have become the cash cow for many Australian universities. Now we face something of a slowly rolling crisis in which enrolments are dropping, commencements are dropping faster.

Faced with this decline, the big universities who have benefited most from those students are turning back to the local market, increasing competition for local students. Here the most lucrative group are those from what are called lower socio-economic backgrounds because they get the greatest funding.

This hits UNE hard simply because its main regional student catchments actually contain a very high proportion of students in these groups.

All Australian universities also face a progressive “deregulation” of the student marketplace, one that provides an incentive to get big or get out. Professor Barber has, to my mind, correctly pointed to some of the issues here. Again, UNE faces more competition for students.

Action has to be taken. The difficulty is that the reporting on those actions whether in the Express or the Australian is actually reinforcing the stereotype of UNE as a place in trouble. There are no positive messages, no unifying themes.

People forget, I think, that the majority of the broader university community do not live in Armidale, nor in Northern NSW. Messages designed for a local audience actually spread quite widely.

If members of the broader community know that our university is in trouble because Professor Barber told us so, think of the impact on prospective students. Why should they bother enrolling at UNE? Unless, of course, they just want to use it as an entry point to Sydney!

We cannot sell process or negatives. We have to explain to students why they should some to UNE, to alumni why they should support.

This brings me to my final point.

If, as many of us believe, UNE remains a true university, that is no small thing in today’s Australia. It is huge long term selling point. We should focus on it as a unifying theme.

This should not prevent change. However, it provides a touchstone against which changes can be measured. It also affects the language used in presenting change.

If we don’t do something like this, then the latest changes risk becoming just another in the round of changes that have so afflicted the University in the past.

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