Phase One Implementation Report (August 2012)

The first 18 months: building the foundations

Eighteen months after we began implementing The University of Sydney 2011–2015 Strategic Plan, it is an appropriate moment to consider our progress. How much have we achieved? What remains to be done? Does our original plan hold up in the face of circumstances that have changed since it was finalised?

In this report, you will read about progress towards each of the strategic plan’s 17 strategies and associated initiatives. This is not a statistical report, nor is it a substitute for the regular reporting we complete against the Work Slate or the University’s key performance indicators. Nevertheless, this narrative account demonstrates that much has already been achieved.

A number of initiatives have had real, observable impact: new informal study spaces for students opened this year and are proving immensely popular (strategies 4 and 7); we have enrolled more students from low-socioeconomic status (SES) backgrounds than ever before (strategy 11); our new Sydney Research Networks Scheme (SyReNs) is supporting emerging cross-disciplinary research in areas as diverse as social justice and human rights, climate change and society, and infectious disease and biosecurity (strategy 8); and we have appointed leaders for both the Charles Perkins Centre and the China Studies Centre, and begun the process to recruit academics to staff them (also strategy 8).

Other initiatives have required more preparatory work that centres on the development of agreed principles, improved infrastructure, and new policies and funding agreements. This development work has played an important role in supporting change across the University. For example, the Research Portfolio has negotiated compact agreements with faculties to align central research support with faculty strategies, and the Education Portfolio has begun negotiating agreements that set targets for faculty teaching and learning performance, and detail what support faculties will receive in return.

It will take time for all of this work to bear fruit, but it is progressing well. The full impact of the new curriculum development principles for research and community-engaged teaching will be felt incrementally as pedagogical practice changes, and in three years our PhD students will graduate with a far wider range of skills, better prepared to take their place in the workforce. Construction of the Charles Perkins Centre has begun and planning for new infrastructure such as the Abercrombie Precinct project, the Australian Institute for Nanoscience and student accommodation is well underway, but such large projects inevitably take time to complete.

Only one of the initiatives in the strategic plan – the four-year PhD (initiative 9(c)) – has been found, on closer examination, to be suboptimal in the way it was framed. There is, however, no doubt that the University’s less robust financial circumstances in 2012 have had an impact, causing some initiatives to be suspended until funding is available. Falling into this category are the Second Languages Acquisition plan (initiative 5(b)), the creation of an Office of Community Engagement (initiative 14(a)), and the establishment of an alumni loyalty program (initiative 15(b)).

Change in an institution as large, complex and siloed as the University of Sydney is difficult and takes time. We still need to work on our governance: there are many management committees, not all of which are as well-embedded in the decision-making process or as robustly constituted as we would like. The activities of the central portfolios are not always closely integrated with each other or with the faculties, and the divisional boards are still developing a clear understanding of their role in the management structure. We will review the SEG committee structure in the second half of this year, and plans are now being developed both to bring the International Portfolio closer to the heart of the University’s activities and to improve the capacity of the Education Portfolio to deliver on its very wide range of responsibilities.

Two major themes sum up the thrust of work in the first 18 months of implementation.

First, a great deal of effort has gone into gathering and analysing information, and presenting it in a clear and transparent way. We now see more clearly how our money is distributed and what it is spent on. We better understand what students think of our teaching, and how good our research really is. We know more about what activities our professional staff spend time on, and what our stakeholders think of us. What is more, this information is now actively disseminated, so that both academic and administrative staff have a shared understanding of our institution and are better able to make properly informed strategic decisions.

Second, and partly as a result of the availability of more transparent information, our culture is changing. The principle of mutual accountability that runs throughout the strategic plan is informing and motivating action, as people begin to see that decisions they make will affect others. This hasn’t been an easy process, and there have been tensions and relapses, but the silos are beginning to crumble.

In the White Paper, we said that “the overarching strategic direction of the next planning period must be to rediscover what it means for so large and disparate an organisation to be a single university, a federation of academic communities working more closely together”. As the following pages will show, we are indeed in the process of becoming one university.