Wednesday, November 21, 2012

UNE's trimesters hit Armidale economy

It's not on-line, at least at this point, but the Armidale Express is reporting that UNE's new trimester system has hit the local economy hard.

The system allows students to do an extra semester between November and February, a time when the University was previously in recess. It sounds good, but there is a problem.

To accommodate the system, the end date of the previous semester has been shortened by three weeks, finishing end October. Because offerings in the new trimester are on-line, residential students have been leaving Armidale earlier than previously, hitting local businesses. 

Back in Armidale earlier this month, I noticed how quiet the University campus and city centre were, but didn't properly realise the cause.

Judith Ross Smith is leading a campaign to revitalise the Armidale CBD. For those who are interested, you will find the Facebook public group page here

Postscript

Siobhan McCarthy's Armidale Express story - Cafes reel over UNE trimester - is now on-line.

In a comment here, Rod wrote:

I don't like the idea of shortening semesters to create trimesters. A similar thing happened to my closest university (SCU) about three years ago. I remember how the students struggled to do the units adequately within a shortened time frame. Eventually the units had content cut or more units were created (of course the number of units needed to complete a degree didn't decrease) and the result is... graduates with less knowledge than before. That is without considering the issues associated with a local economy relying on tertiary education.

Rod, this was something I wondered about. I didn't have time on my last trip to Armidale to properly suss out the on-ground position. You have to talk to a number of coal-face people to get a proper picture. The comments I did get were negative along three lines: some to the supporting systems hadn't been properly worked out; student's weren't dumb - they knew when they were being short-changed; finally, the additional load on staff.

According to a comment on the Express story from one student studying in residence, not all the courses are on-line delivered. When I get time, I will try to properly establish just what courses are offered, how, over what real period and with what content. That will make a standards judgement easier to make.

I won't repeat the Express comments in detail, but I wanted to pick up a couple of themes.

First, the UNE heavies have in fact ignored concerns raised by students and by the residential system. There was on-campus consultation, but Professor Barber's very focused support on one primary solution has raised concerns among alumni. That is, its not consultation but direction and persuasion. I covered this a little in Saturday Morning Musings - UNE alumni dinner.

If you look at my report, you will see how Professor Barber's initial and very enthusiastic for on-line as a low cost profitable delivery device that would allow UNE to compete in the new world actually got quite a frosty response. He was telling the wrong story to an audience scarred by previous university mistakes. UNE might become successful in commercial terms or as measured in Canberra, but what was the point if the UNE experience was lost, if it became just another on-line delivery vehicle. Professor Barber then changed track. I quote from my story:  P1000324

"Now I heard Jim Barber start by talking about the university as a business, about the on-line revolution, about the need to deliver a low cost product. UNE, he seemed to be saying, had to survive by delivering a mass, cheap, on-line product. There was not a single word in the first five minutes of business/CEO speak that explained to me why I should continue to support UNE.

From my question, the flood gates opened. It wasn't harsh questioning. It was persistent questioning. Under that questioning, VC Barber gradually gave us reasons for encouragement.

UNE was not going to become, as it first seemed, a low cost provider of mass on-line education. In fact, UNE had chosen to stay smallish. UNE was not going to become just an on-line institution, something that worried many alumni. In fact, UNE was going to use revenue from on-line delivery to cross-subsidise the redevelopment of the University's unique residential model.

And yet, all this had to be dragged out through questioning. Even then, there was no real recognition of the University's history, of what in management speak might be called its unique selling points.

If you now look at the Express story, and I quote:

Ms Woodbury (pro-vice chancellor) said that given the positive student response, the university anticipates that in the coming years there would be more on campus study options as well as seeking alternative uses for the campus over the summer months.

“As the student interest in trimester three grows the university would look to see more on campus and residential schools take place over this period,” she said.

“The university is looking to have a better use of the summer period with a wider range of options with more school and sporting groups and conferences.

“This is a long term plan and I think it is good news for Armidale.”

On the surface, and if you consider Professor Barber's presentation, the University would have appeared to have delivered the first arm, on-line delivery, without the second, ways of managing the impact of change to enhance other aspects of the UNE experience. All the positives are possibles, long term things.

Normally when you introduce a major change, you do two things. You model the impacts on other parts of the system and you do a risk analysis. Now that may have been done, but I have the strong impression that University management was so focused on selling the new approach, on trying to make it work, that they may not have looked at broader issues. As I said, that is an impression.

Turning to another matter raised in the comments, I quote Jack:

So, if trimesters are here to stay, and retail is suffering because of it... what is the solution?

Here is a hot tip, when the students come back, make sure you let them know how valued they are.

Next hot tip; Armidale had better start looking at other ways to turn a buck. Shutting down for all of january - really? That's a business plan nowadays?

As a former Chair of Tourism Armidale, I can tell you that the city is very bad at promoting itself. One of our problems at the time lay in our inability to get people to recognise that it needed too. Part of the problem, too, was the purely domestic focus of many local businesses including those servicing tourists.

Later, I hammered away at somewhat similar themes in my Belshaw World columns. I traced the rise of Armidale inwardness and indeed that of UNE back to the university expansion of the 1970s. Then official NSW projections saw Armidale's population passing that of Tamworth by the turn of the century. Everybody talked about growth. Many were concerned to restrict it to preserve the city's life style.

I talked about the near-death experience that the city and university faced in the 1990s. I argued that Armidale now could not assume that the University would be there in future; other options had to be found. I pointed to the dramatic decline in the name recognition attached to the city and what that meant for the future; and I argued that in promotional terms the city's approach was narrow, unimaginative, unstable, using only a tiny proportion of the sizzle that could sell the city. I also suggested that the university actually suffered from similar problems. Both had become parochial and inward looking.

Was I right? Am I right? I don't know. I do feel that both UNE and the city itself need a reality check plus a large dose of applied imagination.

8 comments:

Rod said...

I don't like the idea of shortening semesters to create trimesters. A similar thing happened to my closest university (SCU) about three years ago. I remember how the students struggled to do the units adequately within a shortened time frame. Eventually the units had content cut or more units were created (of course the number of units needed to complete a degree didn't decrease) and the result is... graduates with less knowledge than before. That is without considering the issues associated with a local economy relying on tertiary education.

Jim Belshaw said...

Thanks, Rod. I will bring your comment up in the main post. The story itself is now on-line, with some comments.

Legal Eagle said...

Semesterisation is bad enough, without trimesterisation. I think you actually need a little time for the stuff you learn to sink in.

Robert Clarke said...

Thanks for this post Jim. Poor old UNE has been struggling for some years now one way or another and I was (sort of) comforted by Barber's elaboration. I agree about Armidale's ability to promote itself - when I was Chairman of the Armidale Devlopment Corporation in the early 90s, there were too few champions or visionaries amongst the local businesses. It may well be a small town thing - here in Bowral the local retailers prefer to complain rather than act.
cheers
Bob Clarke

Jim Belshaw said...

I agree with you on that point, LE. Or at least I find it so.

Personally, I am a very fast reader with a reasonably good short term memory. That helped me in exam cramming. I find with the on-line stuff and especially with multiple question assessments that I can cruise through comfortably enough in short time. But to remember, for the course to have long term impacts years later, I need time to reflect. And to be challenged!

Jim Belshaw said...

I think that the small town thing is right. But in the case of UNE, add big fish in small pond. It's easy to forget that both are tiny fish in a very big pond. Both also live a bit off the efforts of the past. And the future those past efforts obtained did not come easily.

Legal Eagle said...

Jim, I'm exactly like you - fast reader and great at cramming but need to be challenged and to have time to let it sink in to retain it.

Jim Belshaw said...

Maybe we are too bright for our own good, LE!