Chapter 4 – Engaged enquiry: local and global partnerships

Nicholson Museum Senior Curator Michael Turner, speaking at one of our many public events

The University of Sydney serves a broad range of communities, geographic, social, and intellectual. This gives us a unique challenge. Some universities aim to be global in their reach and pay little attention to the local community and its needs. Others seek to serve a local region and pay little attention to international engagement. We are one of a group of international research universities that must demonstrably engage with both public and private sector partners at the local, regional and international levels and contribute to the life of those different communities. Similarly, our work must be planned with an eye to the activities of purely local, and also international, competitors.

Four priorities have emerged during the consultation process, ranging from the broadest to the most narrowly defined of our communities. First, we must extend our global reach, to ensure that our students are global citizens prepared for participation in an increasingly international labour market, and that our researchers are actively engaged in international collaborations bringing their research expertise to bear on important global challenges. This involves the initiatives outlined in Strategy Five, but it also has implications for what we do in partnership with overseas institutions, networks and intergovernmental organisations. During the planning period we shall continue to focus our international engagement on China and South-East Asia, particularly developing new relationships in western China, without undermining our extremely strong ties to Europe and the United States. We produce more publications co-authored with researchers in China than any other university in Australia, and all but four other universities in the world. That co-authorship figure can grow still further as the Chinese university sector develops (it is still far short of our co-authorship figures for Europe and the United States). East Asian students make up the largest cohort of our international student intake, and we have several programs that involve teaching delivery in that region. In Chapter 3 we talked about drawing together our remarkable work in the area studies of China and South-East Asia. We are committed to strengthening our links with this part of the world, where the higher education sector is expanding most rapidly.

Second, the University has a strong tradition of engagement with rural Australia, and indeed we have a footprint in communities as far afield as Cooma, Broken Hill, Moree, Lismore and One Tree Island. But there is a sense that some of the University’s ties with regional Australia have been weakening in recent years, particularly with the increasing difficulty faced by rural students in meeting the costs of education in a metropolitan university. We are therefore committed to strengthening our partnerships with targeted rural communities, often in association with some of the regional universities that serve them.

Third, the University’s Camperdown/Darlington Campus sits in the middle of a diverse community of villages including Redfern, Chippendale, Newtown and Glebe. Along with neighbouring universities, a major teaching hospital and other vocational and training institutions, this unique part of Sydney has developed into a precinct for enquiring minds, vibrancy and creativity. It features a thriving arts and cultural scene and is home to a proud Indigenous community. It is also an area of significant disadvantage, with some of Sydney’s poorest communities living alongside areas of considerable wealth. As we engage with communities further afield, we must also deepen our ties with our immediate neighbours, and conversations have begun with them about how best to do this in a way that takes local advantage of our work in research and education, and builds trust between the University and those with whom it shares this part of Sydney. Some within the University have urged the development and implementation of a practical platform for students to participate in local (and indeed global) civic and community projects.

Finally, the University is committed to deepening its ties with its community of alumni and supporters across Australia and internationally. This is a community defined not geographically, but by its loyalty to the institution. For many years our alumni, outside one or two faculties, felt that the University did not do enough to maintain its links with them. In particular, the University needed to make its intellectual resources more available to this community, and put greater effort into recruiting its alumni as advocates, friends and supporters. Our work with this community has improved enormously over recent years, but there is still much to be done and the consultation process demonstrated that this was the case.

In short, throughout the consultation process there was a clear desire for enhanced and coordinated community engagement at all levels, reflecting these four priorities. We must also remedy the pervasive sense that we are too complex an enterprise to navigate and too internally focused. This sense is in many ways more a product of our failure to communicate what we are doing than it is a reality, but that too is something that we must address during the planning period. The following strategies reflect the goals we have set for our engagement with our many communities, both through our scholarly work and also as a responsible, socially aware higher education enterprise.

Strategy Thirteen: Prioritise international engagement on a regional basis to support the effective development of University-wide partnerships and networks

The University’s current strengths in the international sphere include strong international rankings, a growing international profile, ongoing international student demand and a diplomatic community strongly supportive of the University’s work. That our international student demand remains strong in the face of the financial crisis, increased competition and negative media about Australian higher education is evidence of the high regard in which the University is held, particularly in our region.

Our work to internationalise the University has had both external and internal aspects. Externally, our approach has concentrated on three key pillars of activity: increasing the University’s participation in major leadership fora; working with Australian and foreign governments in higher education diplomacy; and increasing the engagement of international alumni in our priority regions. We have also fostered relationships with industry and business in countries where we are active. This work has not only strengthened our international engagement and profile, but has also increased access to new resources and funding opportunities for our academic community. Internally, we have directed our focus to building University-wide support for our international strategy, implementing policies that facilitate international engagement, and promoting staff and student exchange programs to increase international participation, exposure and experience.

On a number of measures our effort compares favourably with that of our Australian peer institutions. We have achieved significant results without the need to establish expensive offshore offices and campuses, as many have chosen to do. Our international collaborations in terms of research outputs, student numbers and overall revenues from international activities (fees, grants, and scholarships) are comparable to other Australian research-intensive institutions or even better.

Consultations around the Green Paper suggested, however, that a critical issue for action was agreement of priorities for our University-wide outreach to the different regions of the world, and thus a more coordinated investment in international activities. Given the strength of Australia’s economic and political ties with our immediate neighbours, the expertise of the University in the study of China and South-East Asia, and the rapid growth of the Chinese higher education sector, our efforts should be focused on China and South-East Asia, although South Asia is an area to which increasing priority should be given at the University-wide level. In China, the recent investment of the Chinese government in the west of the country, and the development of several important universities in that region, means that we should forge deeper links there.

Some effort should be directed on a University-wide basis to engagement with South Korea, Japan, North America and Europe, but much of this will arise in any case from the work of individual academic communities. In these regions, our focus should be on drawing the attention of faculties to new opportunities, particularly opportunities for funding from foreign governments, research agencies and international organisations.

Finally, more limited engagement at a University-wide level should be pursued with Latin America and with Africa, although student recruitment in Latin America should be a priority for the diversification of our international student body.

In each case, the SEG International Committee should agree with SEG early in 2011 a coordinated plan of University-wide activity to reflect these priorities, based on the Australian national interest, opportunities for research and education collaboration, and possibilities for student recruitment.

In order to achieve this strategy we will:

13(a) Focus our regional engagement efforts on China, South-East Asia, and India as top priorities; Korea, Japan, North America and Europe as medium priorities; and Latin America and Africa as emerging priorities.

13(b) Develop a business plan to reflect these priorities and cover existing gaps, as appropriate.

13(c) Develop the Sydney World Program of offshore and onshore academic fora, symposia, graduations and alumni receptions, consistent with our regional priorities.

13(d) Design an international communications program using media and messages appropriate to targeted audiences, consistent with the University’s overall communications strategy.

Strategy Fourteen: Develop and implement a coordinated University-wide framework for local and rural community engagement

The University’s engagements with both local and rural communities are diverse and valuable. For example, our rural health programs and agricultural extension activities are important to the communities in which they operate, and some faculties rely heavily on rural sites for student placement and research. Similarly, the Glebe Community Development Project is an example of faculty involvement with our immediate neighbours, providing learning opportunities for students as well as professional development for community leaders and educators.

As the University’s commitment to involvement with local and rural communities grows, it is essential that we identify those communities with which we can most fruitfully partner across a range of initiatives. Locally, we have recently established a Campus–Community Task Force to coordinate activity around the possible extension of our Camperdown/Darlington Campus to North Eveleigh. Recent community meetings with stakeholders in Darlington have borne out the need for us to work harder to understand the needs of our neighbours, and to develop the role that we each play in fostering and sustaining these relationships. New vehicles for ongoing communication have been established and proposals for a number of Redfern-based initiatives are under discussion with local communities.

The University’s Rural Focus Group has identified a need to bring greater coordination to our activities outside the Sydney metropolitan area. To do so, we should select a number of rural communities with whom we have existing links, particularly those where we already have a physical presence, and build stronger University-wide cooperation with them across a range of activities. In responses to the Green Paper, there was broad-based support for a rural engagement strategy, agreed at a University-wide level, targeting particular rural communities. Many faculties, in fact, strongly emphasised their history of rural partnerships, and a tradition of regional extension programs that might be enhanced through a viable institution-wide commitment. These might include engagement with local schools as part of our social inclusion program, local access to continuing and professional education, and a range of relevant research and education initiatives. In each case, cooperation should be sought with local and state government agencies and with regional universities and other institutions of higher education.

In order to achieve this strategy we will:

14(a) Establish an Office of Community Engagement to create and cultivate meaningful and sustainable community partnerships, consistent with our research and education mission.

14(b) Conduct an audit of current community engagement programs throughout the University, including those in rural and remote areas, to focus future activity in community engagement.

14(c) Identify a sustainable number of projects that include opportunities for education and research activities (in consultation with external groups) that will directly engage local residents, students, staff and alumni.

14(d) Embed strategies for community-engaged learning within the curricula of the University through the process of curriculum renewal.

14(e) Increase our stakeholders’ understanding of the University’s mission, goals and messages through the implementation of an integrated marketing and communications plan.

14(f) Include in the campus master planning process consideration of the infrastructure required to create and sustain a viable cultural precinct.

Strategy Fifteen: Deepen our engagement with a supportive network of alumni and friends

By any measure, our alumni and friends are a remarkable community. They constitute a vital network for the University both in Australia and overseas. Indeed, of our contactable alumni, approximately 14 percent reside internationally. This group is constituted not only of our alumni who came to Australia as international students, but also the very many domestic students who now work internationally.

Over the last three years we have enhanced opportunities for alumni participation in University life in several ways. For example, we have implemented a student–alumni engagement program to make students ‘alumni aware’ as soon as they begin their studies, to instil a culture of active involvement after graduation, and to explore strategies for enhancing the student experience through the alumni community. Alumni are also among the most passionate supporters of our extensive public education programs, and attendance by alumni at University-organised events has increased by 30 percent in the last three years.

A key priority for the planning period must be deepening our relationships with our alumni community. In response to the Green Paper, our alumni emphasised their willingness to be engaged in the academic activities of the institution. Equally, our staff told us of the value of alumni engagement and stressed the importance of the continuing role of our alumni in many aspects of University life. We must broaden alumni engagement with the University through a diverse range of online groups and local and interest-based alumni chapters, with links to the Alumni Council. The events, programs and activities run by these groups, and others run by the University itself, will encourage our alumni and friends to become active supporters of our academic, research, recruitment and philanthropic priorities. Further, an important initiative will be to increase formal opportunities for volunteering at the University and to provide appropriate training and recognition for doing so. Finally, public programs such as those run by our museums, the Faculty of Science, and our Sydney Ideas lecture series, open the life of the University to the wider community, bring the community into the work of the University and enrich the ongoing intellectual life of the city of Sydney.

Of course, the friends of the University also include those who support us in a variety of ways, not least financially. The University raises more private support than any other Australian institution. In 2008, for example, Sydney secured more charitable dollars than our three closest Australian competitors combined. Although the University lags behind our international peers, it would be short-sighted to assume, as some do, that Australia lacks a ‘culture of philanthropy’ and that this would impair our ability to grow our fundraising activity significantly. Case studies from around the world indicate that when higher education institutions increase the frequency of asking, the frequency and value of philanthropic giving increases proportionately.

Our immediate priorities are therefore twofold. First, we must build an internal capacity to ‘ask’ for philanthropic gifts more frequently, more strategically and more effectively. Engendering active support from donors will therefore require increasing engagement from academic leadership. We need to build the consistency and professionalism with which gifts are solicited, and speed up the pace at which gifts to the University are made. Second, we must develop even further a culture of giving among the University’s alumni base. The natural affinity that most alumni have with the University provides an excellent starting point for communicating our ‘case for support’. One way in which to achieve both these, and our broader aims, is a major University-wide campaign, which we intend to launch towards the middle of the planning period.

In order to achieve this strategy we will:

15(a) Develop a University-wide volunteer program including recruitment, management, training and recognition for volunteers.

15(b) Develop further an alumni loyalty program to provide recognition and benefit.

15(c) Ensure alignment of our international and alumni strategies to maximise the benefit of our relationships with alumni groups, and galvanise a growing worldwide network of supporters.

15(d) Establish a coordinated University-wide management model for events and public programs, such as Sydney Ideas, that generate intellectual and creative engagement and a sense of community.

15(e) Plan and launch a University-wide fundraising campaign with a defined target, led by the Vice-Chancellor.