The TMP HE 44 cohort gathered in Sydney in mid-July to see how universities on the other side of the globe were dealing with the challenges facing our sector. We arrived to blue skies and everyone spoke English; on the surface, it didn’t seem that different from where we had come from. For those on their first trip to Australia a couple of side trips to satisfy the craving for koalas and kangaroos was a must. For others, it was a night at the opera and some innovative food. We all ticked off selfies at the harbour with the bridge, ferries and Opera House and we all tried not to mention the cricket.
Tuesday morning we were back to business and the group split up to visit a number of universities - new and Group of Eight (Go8). Our conversations with senior staff covered a range of topics including the impact and management of digitalisation, student wellbeing, marketisation, and institutional strategies.
Our Australian colleagues were generous with their time and shared assessments of what’s working and what isn’t. The impact of internationalisation and the reliance on students from China came up in a number of conversations, and a recognition that many university business models were overly reliant on this market. Could this model continue, and what could we learn from this? In the UK, we are also chasing the Chinese and South East Asian markets, but at what point will these markets decide they want their own elite institutions?
The scale of the universities was striking, not just in terms of student numbers but also how geographically spread out many of them are. Australia is, of course, a huge country and universities are serving not just the city populations, but rural communities in remote locations. The importance of providing a quality digital infrastructure was brought into sharp focus, and many of the institutions we visited had developed innovative online offers. We may not have exactly the same issues in the UK, but the importance of flexible delivery options and a need to serve communities of students who cannot come to university full- time, means we need to step up our online provision.
These issues also raised questions about how universities develop their identities when students are split between many campuses, with a mix of local and international students, and many engaging only virtually. This has become increasingly relevant in the UK as we battle with increasing mental health issues in our student body, the attainment gap, and rising international numbers. Developing strong personal connections and a cohort identity is one way to support students through an increasingly stressful journey, but how do we facilitate this in meaningful ways is still a challenge on both sides of the globe.
During our week a couple of issues remained ‘noted’, but perhaps not fully explored. Just as in the UK, many of the senior teams we met were predominantly male, and white. In a country that is incredibly diverse, but struggles to come to terms with its bicultural relationships, should we expect the university sector to be taking a greater lead in this conversation? And should we expect senior teams to reflect that diversity?
I spent nearly 20 years in Australia and New Zealand both in the higher education sector and within the TV Industry. I was Network Programmer for SBS TV for eight years in Sydney, and it was in this role, not in my university roles, that I finally engaged and learnt about Australia’s First People, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders. Here I experienced first-hand the complexities of these identities, relationships and politics. As we talked on our visits about the civic role of universities in Australia I couldn’t help but think that TV, and especially SBS, had done so much more to move the public conversation on around these issues.
The week in Sydney certainly gave me time to reflect on how different Australia is from the UK, and how my particular experiences had shaped my understanding of its higher education sector. We share a language, and we have many of the same challenges, but the nuances of how these issues get played out, are shaped by those identities, politics and relationships. I’m sure all of us left with a different experience of Australia.
And isn’t that the point of the TMP? To get in amongst it, to experience it, but then to reflect, and share, and think about how we can use that experience, that understanding and those questions to inform our own leadership. And that is also the value of the programme.
Advance HE recently launched Top Management Programme for Higher Education - Australia and New Zealand (TMP HE ANZ). Applications for the programme, which starts in February 2020, are now open.
Applications for TMP HE 46 are also open.