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Visioning our future

By Lachlan Chipman - posted Tuesday, 15 February 2000

What will happen to traditional campus-based universities over the next twenty years? Despite the huge increase in demand for higher education, I believe there will be fewer, not more, traditional universities. Their main challenges will be:

  • How to reduce costs to become price competitive with the new for profit providers (including the for profit subsidiaries of other traditional universities)
  • How to persuade governments to persist with the level of protection that currently guarantees them a student load at low (albeit increasing) direct costs to the student
  • How to reorganise work patterns and modes of operation to meet rising student expectations of convenience-focused delivery, while at the same time reducing input costs per graduate.

Those traditional universities that will survive are those which are able to sell the very experience of attending them as worth far more than the equally real value of the qualification obtained. They fall into three groups, and comprise:

  • Universities from which graduation is a social status passport (eg Oxford, Cambridge, Harvard, Stanford, Upsala, and Heidelberg) and can therefore survive as high cost high price providers. The commercial analogue is the ‘designer label’, where vanity purchasers are even prepared to suffer at the margin inferior product manufacture and durability to be seen to be fashionable. CQU is not one of these, nor are most, if any, other Australian universities.
  • Those that gain acceptance for the view that they are precious and prestigious national assets, and should be publicly protected/subsidised accordingly. The first university in each of the mainland Australian States (the two Royal Charter-based Universities of Sydney and Melbourne, and the Universities of Queensland, Adelaide, and Western Australia) could well mount this argument. It might also be argued for the research-focused Institute for Advanced Studies within the Australian National University. Neither CQU, nor any of the other 30 public universities in Australia, fall into this group. Corporate state countries such as Singapore and South Korea will take this approach with their major institutions, as will the People’s Republic of China.
  • Those which, by a combination of unprecedented cost containment, subsidies from highly profitable activities, and a level of private personal and corporate philanthropy hitherto unprecedented in the Australian higher education sector, are able to deliver a "traditional" university experience in a price competitive way. This clearly must be the group with which CQU identifies. However, we must be mindful of the fact that the other 30 public universities in Australia not included in the "precious and prestigious" category will most likely draw the same conclusion! It is surely impossible that all, or even most, should succeed.

The last dot point involves the bare bones of my advice as to the appropriate strategy for CQU to adopt for the next twenty years. The following constitute a sub-set of the directional principles that fall out of this assessment:

  • CQU will develop its courseware and mix of delivery modes to ensure maximum student reach at progressively lower marginal cost
  • CQU will continue to strengthen its research, centred on the Central Queensland ‘heartland’ campuses, giving particular attention to ensuring rapid transfer into CQU curriculum and courseware
  • In areas of teaching in which CQU does not conduct significant research, priority will be given to ensuring the highest standards of locally conducted scholarship regularly and consistently inform curriculum and courseware
  • In order to ensure the continuing attractiveness of the Central Queensland campuses in an increasingly competitive environment, greater attention must be given to the totality of the student experience, especially student involvement in the extracurricular social, sporting, and cultural opportunities, in accordance with a theme such as ‘foundations for leadership’ (The defeat of the Federal Government’s proposed Voluntary Student Unionism legislation would be helpful here)
  • Internationalisation must be accelerated, not just with a view to increasing revenue but also to strengthening the relevance of the curriculum, and broadening the experience of Australian-born students, especially in the Central Queensland campuses
  • CQU Alumni must be transformed from being a social goodwill friendship group – which must also continue – into a systematic giving body; this is a transformation at which so far no Australian university has been successful
  • CQU must make an unprecedented assault on its own product costs (costs per graduate and per unit of research output), the most significant component of which by far continues to be salaries. To do this without creating redundancies we must look to unprecedented growth in full-fee paying student numbers.

All of these are more or less under way. Nonetheless I believe this is the first time the University has had an opportunity to see them in the context of a twenty-year outlook based on what I submit is a sober assessment of our domestic and global operating environment. This assessment is grounded in my own unusually long (41 years) and broad (11 universities, four countries, three Australian States) experience of the national and international higher education sectors, as well as a comprehensive study of all of the relevant literature.

Two consequences should be clear. One is that the University must be managed to move in these directions at a faster pace than at present. We now have the senior leadership team in place to accomplish this, however more work needs to be done to strengthen the leadership skills of those in the middle levels of the organisation. Leadership-management of an effective modern university must be both strong and widely distributed within the organisation. The other is to recognise that the functions of an Australian Vice-Chancellor are slowly becoming more like those of the US university president, for whom engineering philanthropic endowment and systematic and substantial alumni giving have moved to be among the most central parts of the job. At major US universities, alumni giving alone contributes more per annum to university revenues than total private fee income, but without the same impost on university operating costs, and without the same restrictions on how the income can be applied.

All of these changes must be accomplished in a context in which change management can only be achieved persuasively rather than in a directional manner, and in which there is still much to be done to bring responsibility and accountability into a more perfect alignment. I believe our understanding of the environment and the progress we have already made puts us further ahead on this road to the future than any other Australian university. The road is a long one and we must be mindful that it has many overtaking lanes. The most valuable resource we have making this journey is our staff. By being successful we can incidentally increase the prospects for the career and income security understandably dear to us all.

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About the Author

Professor Lauchlan Chipman was the Vice-Chancellor and President of Central Queensland University. He was awarded a D Phil from Oxford in 1972, and his academic career has included specialisation in philosophy and law.

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