Strategic Positioning: Vice-Chancellor talks about partnership with the ANU

2 March 2005

Strategic Positioning
By Professor Gavin Brown, Vice-Chancellor and Principal of the University of Sydney

It is no surprise that the Cooperation Agreement between ANU and the University of Sydney, signed last week, has stirred the possum. This is a radical venture which envisages joint planning in long term research initiatives, cross-credit of courses - even joint badging of degrees in due time - and shared marketing presentations overseas.

Competing internationally we seek creative ways to expand our resource base, to provide broader and deeper opportunities for students and to establish the human and material infrastructure which will attract and retain outstanding researchers.

The question most often asked is whether this is a response to poor investment in higher education or an opportunity created by reform of the sector. The complex answer has to be 'both' and 'neither'. The 'neither' response is important and shared, because Ian Chubb and I, differing on many issues, have a transcendental core belief in common - that it is up to universities to secure their own destiny. Creating an intellectual powerhouse from two great institutions is not an act which requires external permission, facilitation or validation.

An explanation of the 'both' reply requires some analysis of the current Australian higher education scene. When one goes through the annual reports of the universities, the feature that strikes the eye is not that one or two institutions produce deficits, rather the problem is that so little 'profit' is generated for reinvestment. With only a handful of exceptions, the institutions are expending almost all of their annual income as operating expenses. This fact is the more worrying when dependence on overseas student fees is taken into account, as that income could fluctuate wildly. Moreover, many Australian universities are supplementing their income from ventures partnering the private sector, where a teaching-only operation of a no frills type avoids the overheads associated with research opportunities, sabbatical leave and other traditional staff benefits.

The underlying problem is, of course, that Australia cannot sustain 38 universities of flagship international status, yet embedded in our psyche is a notion of fair and equal esteem. Although our population roughly matches that of the State of Florida, all 38 should, it seems, emulate Harvard. There have been welcome signs in the government's reform package that differentiation of mission is to be encouraged but there remains an inertial drag towards downward equalisation.

Consider the option to introduce up to 25% increase in student HECS payments. This was intended to foster competition and differentiation. In reality, the resource increase was so necessary that a very large number of universities have immediately embraced the full option (and I predict that almost all will follow). We will end up with an across the board increase in student contributions for which the individual universities, rather than the government, take the blame.

We want more students to have appropriate access to university. In this regard it is commendable that the present government converted marginally funded overload places to fully funded places. Moreover it is legitimate that these places should have been redistributed over the sector in a planned way. Nevertheless, although the original pattern of overload corresponded to real demand there must have been a severe temptation to re-allocate places to prop up less viable institutions where demand was desirable but low. One engineers against market forces at one's peril. Extra places may be a short-term fix preventing redundancies but are unlikely to create efficiency of operation in its previous absence.

My university, with welcome cooperation from Dr Nelson, used the reallocation of places for strategic repositioning. Rather than simply seek additional places, we assessed our priorities and worked with three other universities to achieve structural re-alignment. We moved our nursing program to focus on postgraduate entry and transferred undergraduate places to ACU and UTS, recovering a corresponding number of places for high demand core programs in Arts, Science and Health Sciences. We have engaged in a similar transfer of our Orange Campus to Charles Sturt University (CSU) with a corresponding gain of places in metropolitan Sydney. Admiring, as I do, CSU's network operation in rural NSW, I believe that this too is a win-win.

Moreover, we continue to be engaged in active research cooperation with CSU, not only at Orange in agriculture but also in the discipline of education. Just as with ANU obvious complementarities make for a strong relationship.

I believe that government is providing a better environment for universities to engage in strategic positioning. Policy execution can be imperfect but the onus is on universities to play to their individual strengths. This requires a delicate blend of cooperation and competition and also of core aspirations and shrewd accounting.

This article was first published in The Australian 2 March 2005