The University of Sydney is a research-intensive university offering high-quality programs and educational opportunities to students from over 140 countries. Ranked in the top 100 universities in the world in the Shanghai Jiao Tong index and in the top 40 in the Times Higher Education-QS rankings, the University has a proud tradition of leadership in both research and teaching. Indeed we can make a strong claim to being the first university in the world to admit students purely on the basis of academic merit.
Being the custodians of a proud tradition and a major international institution for research and teaching, however, does not guarantee continuing success. The University of Sydney, like any university, cannot afford to be complacent. The higher education sector in particular, and the broader social, political, institutional and economic climate more generally, is changing rapidly. The University must strategically adapt in order to thrive in this volatile environment.
This situation, however, should not be the occasion for hasty reorientation to contemporary fashion. On the contrary, over the last year we have taken time to engage in a wide-ranging conversation with staff, students, alumni, friends and supporters of the University, and with the wider community, a conversation about our mission and our strategies for the five years from 2011. We have wanted better to define the University’s mission, to identify the challenges ahead, and to formulate the strategies that we will need for the University to flourish. We have sought assessments of the University’s current strengths and weaknesses, and advice on the range of opportunities that we must embrace to meet the challenges ahead.
To this end we have conducted a staff survey involving nearly 800 respondents, a student survey which generated 4450 responses, 12 open workshops for all staff, and more focused discussions one-on-one and in larger groups with deans. We have held sessions for senior administrators in the University, for the Academic Board and for the Senate of the University. We have also spoken to alumni groups, to donors, and to community leaders and government in a variety of groups and settings. This has ensured broad input to the development of this Green Paper. In addition, the 2008–10 Brand Project, through Lipman Hearne, involved detailed interviews, focus groups and informal meetings with 380 staff, 80 students and 170 external stakeholders (alumni, employer organisations, friends and supporters) as well as detailed questionnaires resulting in nearly 5000 responses. Such research has provided invaluable information on how the University’s various communities view our current situation and the challenges that we face. These views and opinions have added an important qualitative dimension to the more usual quantitative forms of evidence on institutional performance that we have to hand. This evidence, qualitative and quantitative, has helped shape much of the following discussion.
This Green Paper outlines our preliminary thinking about the strategic opportunities ahead, and the key decisions the University might take over the next five years to sustain and enhance its standing, and contribution to the public good. It works on the assumption, confirmed through the consultation we have undertaken, that the University, while making a very significant contribution to the public good in many areas, still has vast untapped potential to make an even greater contribution. We were impressed by the enormous goodwill in the community but also the potent aspiration of our communities (staff, students, alumni and friends) for the University to do even more to contribute to the advancement of teaching and research in the national interest. Realising this potential will require bold action and a clear-headed assessment of the contexts in which we operate, and of how to be more effective in defining and achieving our goals.
This Green Paper is therefore a further stage in the consultation process. Six key aspects of the document should be highlighted.
First, the Green Paper is essentially addressed to an internal audience of staff, students, fellows of Senate and alumni. It assumes familiarity with the general workings of the institution. Some of the proposals contained in the document may seem less radical to readers who do not spend their working lives in a research-intensive university, than they will to those who do.
Second, addressed as it is to an internal audience, this Green Paper is not a promotional document. It largely takes the excellence of the University as a given, and focuses on those areas in which we believe that improvement is required. In that it strikes a sometimes confessional tone about the weaknesses of the University, those weaknesses must be seen as areas for improvement in an extremely high-performing institution. It should also be acknowledged that the weaknesses outlined here are characteristic, in some form, of almost all long-established research universities, both in Australia and overseas.
Third, the document is designed to assist in the preparation of a strategic plan for a university, and not some other type of organisation. That may seem obvious, but its ramifications are worth emphasising. Universities, particularly ones as large and as complex as the University of Sydney, rarely achieve a coordinated strategy when some high-level set of outcomes is centrally decreed: outcomes such as the overall numbers of students that will be admitted; the disciplines that will or will not be offered; the mix of undergraduate and postgraduate, or of domestic and international students, that will constitute the university. Readers who are looking for precise answers to these questions in this document will be disappointed, though we do clearly propose that overall student numbers should not grow. Rather, universities such as ours achieve strategic coherence when core purposes are agreed, when the implications of those purposes for core activities are explored, and when the academic and administrative life of the institution is so organised that local academic communities such as schools and faculties are able, and accountable, to achieve those purposes. We believe that issues such as disciplinary range and student mix are best dealt with, not at the university-wide level, but in communities of cognate disciplines held accountable to the achievement of a university-wide purpose.
This document proposes a core strategic purpose for the University, examines some of its implications for education and research, and outlines a number of organisational changes that will help us to achieve it. In the past 18 months we have established a new decision-making body in the University, comprising of the deans, the deputy vice-chancellors, the directors of some of the key university administrative services, and the Vice-Chancellor (the so-called ‘Senior Executive Group’), to bring together the different parts of the University in joint planning and decision-making, and to increase their accountability to one another. We have also amended our budgeting and financial reporting processes for the same purpose, focused the activity of the Academic Board, and assisted Senate in thinking through its committee structure. The organisational changes to which this document devotes considerable attention are a further stage in this process of ensuring that we have effective organisational arrangements to achieve the core purpose outlined in the Green Paper. Many of the issues that the document raises are issues to be addressed by those new units for academic and administrative organisation within their particular circumstances, and mechanisms for ensuring that they do so. Chapter 4 not only outlines those organisational changes, but also makes explicit the ways in which they will enable change in the direction that we believe we need to pursue.
Fourth, because of this focus, the Green Paper does not devote discrete discussion to many important areas of our activity, areas such as community and international relations, physical or information and communications technology infrastructure, or the professional development of our staff. This is not because we see these things as unimportant. On the contrary, strong performance in each of these areas is crucial to our success. Rather, in the case of community and international relations, and physical and information communications technology, it is because we see our approach in these areas as wholly shaped by, and dependent upon, our strategic purposes in the core areas of education and research. In that we devise strategies for these activities, those strategies are dependent upon, and integrated with, our approach to these core areas of concern. In the case of activities such as the professional development of our staff, we see these activities as fundamental ongoing responsibilities of the University and investment in them as essential. But the Green Paper focuses primarily on our vision for education and research, and on the organisational change that we think most urgent. It assumes that the implementation of strategies to further that vision and to effect that change will be built across the whole range of our work.
Fifth, to emphasise these third and fourth aspects of the document is not to suggest that we believe achieving our strategic purpose is merely a case of putting in place the appropriate organisational arrangements. Indeed, this Green Paper is full of proposals, some more and some less fully formulated, for a wide variety of aspects of our work. Indeed, some of those proposals are already the subject of projects on the Vice-Chancellor’s Work Slate, the register of ongoing major projects across the activities of the University that are directed at improving its efficiency and performance (see
Appendix 1). Specific allusion will be made to some of those projects where relevant. Each of these more specific proposals is directed at achieving the strategic purpose that the Green Paper outlines, and we are keen that those responding to the document should comment on these specific proposals as well as its more general ones.
Finally, the Green Paper contains neither an executive summary, nor a list of the proposals contained in the document. This is because we believe that it mounts a coherent argument from this preamble to its conclusion, and that the force of the proposals it contains can only be judged in the context of that argument. We would urge all members of the University community to set aside the few hours required to grapple with the document as a whole.
The Green Paper, which is essentially a discussion document, will be the subject of consultation in the period between 6 March and 19 April 2010. Readers who wish to participate in this consultation should visit sydney.edu.au/green_paper
Those deliberations will be the basis for the development of a White Paper and strategic plan, to be finalised in July. The White Paper will outline the key decisions arising out of the consultation, and offer a strategic plan for endorsement by the Senate of the University, together with an implementation timetable.