Chapter 1 – Our purpose and values

1. Our purpose and values
2. The nature and structure of this White Paper


1. Our purpose and values

Staff and students walking over the new footbridge

The University of Sydney is a large and diverse institution, but one with a strong shared identity. Its work covers an unusually broad range of disciplines. It is spread across nine campuses in the Sydney metropolitan area alone, and works from a large number of sites elsewhere in Australia and overseas. But despite the University’s size and diversity, the consultations around our strategic planning process have revealed deep commitments that bind us together as a community and that must be included in shaping our strategic plan.

First, we share a very clear sense of purpose. The expression of that purpose first proposed in the Green Paper, The University of Sydney 2011–2015, resonated with both the history and the current ethos of the institution. It is that:

We aim to create and sustain a university in which, for the benefit of both Australia and the wider world, the brightest researchers and the most promising students, whatever their social or cultural background, can thrive and realise their full potential.

Second, and even more deeply, our consultations demonstrated that the University shares two key values, values that run like a thread through almost all of the strategies that we propose in this White Paper. One of these concerns the type of work to which we aspire, and the other concerns the way in which we should organise our life together as an academic community. We admit that these values have not always been reflected in everything that we have done as an institution, but they are true to both the vision of the founders of the University, and to our aspirations for its future. The first of these values is that of ‘engaged enquiry’. The second is one of ‘mutual accountability’.

(a) Engaged enquiry
The University is a place of ‘enquiry’. It is a place in which ideas, both new and old, are learned, tested, challenged and modified. This is as true for our first-year undergraduate students as it is for our most experienced teachers and researchers. The University of Sydney sees itself primarily as a place in which the skills of critical thinking are sharpened and exercised: a place where ideas are neither accepted nor rejected too hastily.

We aspire to undertake the task of enquiry in a way that can best be described as ‘engaged’. This notion of ‘engagement’ holds together three aspects of the work of a research university that are sometimes disconnected.

First, it holds together education and research. There should be a seamlessness in the learning of our students and our researchers as they work to sharpen their skills in critical thinking and analysis for the purpose of advancing knowledge and understanding. This connection between education and research was presented in the Green Paper as implicit in our statement of purpose. We said that, on the one hand, “the statement of purpose positions the University as a quality research institution of both national and international significance, a home to the brightest researchers”, in which research is understood as “that which produces a significant and original advance in knowledge or understanding.” But we also said that “the statement of purpose … implies a particular type of educational experience for the most promising students”, one that “brings them into contact with the brightest researchers, and trains them in the type of critical thinking” that we so value. There is an assumption here that all our academic staff are research active even if, in a way made possible by recent changes to our employment and promotions arrangements, they take time during the course of their career to focus on their teaching, rather than research, or the subject of their research becomes the pedagogy of their discipline, rather than the discipline itself. Our vision for the work of the University is one that unites researchers and students in a common task. That is why Chapter 3 of this White Paper addresses both education and research together and draws out connections between them.

Second, the notion of engaged enquiry holds together the work of the various academic disciplines. We are committed to honing the methodologies of the traditional disciplines. But we are also committed to bringing the disciplines together to solve complex research problems and to develop new methodologies at the intersection of the older fields of learning. Cross-disciplinary teaching and research is core to our vision for the development of the University’s work. The Green Paper proposed that the University might undertake to advance various cross-disciplinary programs of research and education in a coherent and coordinated way, and that proposal was positively received in the consultation process.

Finally, the notion of engaged enquiry holds together the work of the University and the life of the various communities – local, national and international – of which it is a part. We believe that our research should address, and be informed by, the questions that our communities are facing and their insights in responding to them. Moreover, we believe that our teaching and learning should both equip our students for leadership and service in the community, and give them opportunities for community-based learning. In our concept of community, we include not only civil society, but also government, the intergovernmental organisations, and the business world. It is important to emphasise, however, a point made in the Green Paper: “the statement of purpose assumes that the particular type of social contribution that we have to make is that which can only be made by the brightest researchers and most promising students.” In other words, engagement with our various communities is not ancillary to our work in education and research: it must both flow from and contribute to that work. This final aspect of the value of engaged enquiry is strongly reflected in the story of the foundation of the University presented in the Green Paper, with its commitment to both fundamental enquiry and social transformation. It is also reflected in what the 5500 or so staff, students and external stakeholders who participated in the 2008–2010 Brand Project consultations told us they valued about the University: a tradition that married academic excellence with a commitment to the various communities that the University serves.

(b) Mutual accountability
Key to the proposals of the Green Paper and to the Strategic Plan is a governance value of ‘mutual accountability’. This is the notion that individual members of the University, and the academic communities of which they are a part, should be accountable to one another for their contribution to the academic and financial health of the institution. This not only has implications for our commitment to, and expectations of, individual staff and students; it also has implications for our approach to decision-making, and for the relationship between the various academic communities that constitute the University.

In relation to individual members of staff and students, this notion of mutual accountability implies that the University has a responsibility, as the statement of purpose puts it, to create and sustain the conditions in which they can “thrive and realise their full potential.” Staff and students told us that mutual respect was essential to their conception of a safe and supportive working environment, and we see accountability and respect as values that are interdependent. In creating this environment of accountability and respect, we must take into account, and promote, the diversity of our staff and students. As we said in the Green Paper, “the statement of purpose suggests that the University should be looking for the greatest talent wherever it is to be found”, and “should be agnostic regarding the nationalities of its researchers and students.” The statement of purpose is also “inclusivist in its assessment of [a student’s] intellectual ability, focusing on their promise at the point of entry …” We need the talents of the most able staff and promising students, and to create the conditions in which they can flourish, if we are to maintain our commitment to engaged enquiry in education and research.

In relation to our approach to decision-making, the concept of mutual accountability implies a commitment to what is sometimes known as shared governance. This is not simply that decision-making will involve consultation with affected stakeholders, although that is certainly the case. It also entails a vision of the relationship between the different academic communities that constitute the University as a whole. In particular, individual academic communities are part of a network of collaboration and accountability for the good of the University. Each community owes a primary accountability to those other communities within the University with whom it shares broad disciplinary or professional commonalities, and beyond them, to the University as a whole. It is this sense of mutual accountability between constituent academic communities that means the University is a community of scholars and not merely a trademark licensing agency for a group of unrelated small businesses. Strategic planning for one part of the University needs crucially, therefore, to take into account the work of related areas of the University and the ambitions of the University’s Strategic Plan. The governance reforms that have taken place in the University over the last two years, and those that are proposed in this White Paper, aim to create fora for decision-making in which groups of academic communities hold one another both financially and academically accountable, develop their plans in a coordinated way and, where possible, encourage the sharing of resources. This is key to resolving some of the complexities of our existing structures with their tendency, explored in the Green Paper, towards splintering our academic effort and failing to maximise the potential of the intellectual and financial resources of the University.

These concepts of ‘engaged enquiry’ and ‘mutual accountability’ that we have identified in the strategic planning process as core to the aspirations of the University (aspirations about both what we seek to achieve and how we seek to achieve it), are given an important role in binding the various elements of this White Paper together. With our statement of purpose they constitute a test of the extent to which our various initiatives do, or do not, meet our strategic directions.


2. The nature and structure of this White Paper

The relationship between this White Paper and our Strategic Plan is that the latter is comprised of 17 strategies and accompanying initiatives for which the former offers context and commentary. A copy of the Strategic Plan is appended to the White Paper as Appendix 1. The White Paper and Strategic Plan are not themselves a detailed financial strategy, although obviously their preparation has been informed by concurrent planning for the financial viability of the institution, and modelling of the financial assumptions on which they rely.

Readers of this White Paper will quickly see two things. First, there is much in the business of the University that is barely mentioned in these pages. We assume that the day-to-day business of the University will continue during the planning period, and that we have a duty continually to improve the quality of our performance in every area. The so-called ‘Vice-Chancellor’s Work Slate’ is a good guide to our ongoing projects in performance improvement across the range of our work.

Second, some readers of the White Paper may be disappointed that so much of what we propose here consists not in bold single initiatives but in reforms to process, in exhortations that the University should do better much that it already does, and in projects that require significant further consultation and development. There are certainly some bold initiatives in this plan that will significantly enhance the quality of what we do. Were we to pick just three, we might point to: a major reform of the undergraduate generalist degrees so that the first year, in particular, better meets the needs of students; the establishment of a University centre for research and education regarding obesity, diabetes and cardiovascular disease, setting a new standard in cross-disciplinary research and education involving almost the whole University; and a radical reorganisation of student administration to create a new ease and seamlessness in the student’s relationship with the University from first enquiry to alumni engagement. But much else of what we outline here is either still at the exploratory stage, or concerns process and the ways in which we are going to advance particular issues.

This is for two reasons. First, our challenge is not that cutting-edge practice is absent: we are leaders in many areas of educational and research practice. Rather, our challenge is that, from education and research to marketing and student recruitment, neither a coherent University-wide approach, nor comprehensive mechanisms for sharing good practice, are evidently in place. The Green Paper revealed our primary current challenge to be that much of what is excellent about our practice remains local, and that the whole is often less than the sum of the parts. 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. We believe that a program of initiatives aimed at giving coherence to the activities of the University as a whole would be transformative.

Second, it would, of course, be possible to bring coherence by strategic fiat, by declaring that the University should invest in this, withdraw from that, and adopt this or that approach in a range of areas. Some of the proposals in this White Paper are of that kind. But we believe that an important part of the changes that we are bringing to the University, changes described in Chapter 2, concern the way in which ideas are developed and implemented, and strengthen the capacity of the University to be what is sometimes called a ‘learning organisation’ – one that is constantly engaged in a process of critical self-reflection and performance improvement. To identify here that we need to develop a detailed strategy for a particular area is not simply to shelve the issue, nor does it represent a failure of the current planning process. It is to charge the Senior Executive Group (SEG), a body whose functions are more fully described in Chapter 2, with the task of developing and implementing a coherent University-wide approach to issues that have been identified as needing attention, and to do so within an agreed time frame, and with agreed mechanisms for determining success or failure.

Chapter 2 of this document begins with the issue of refining our governance structures. Given that many of the challenges outlined in the Green Paper in large part arise from failures in collective planning, we believe that governance reform could have a significant positive impact on the University’s ability to achieve its aspirations, and is, in that sense, of strategic importance. Moreover, several of the strategies outlined in Chapter 3 and Chapter 4 require an understanding of our proposed new structures. Chapter 2 concludes with a section on a strategy for managing the size and shape of the University, including the key role in that process for our new governance structures.

Chapter 3 and Chapter 4 constitute the heart of our strategic program. They outline our strategies in education, research, and in building stronger local and global partnerships. Each strategy is followed by a list of initiatives that we will implement during the planning period.

Many of the initiatives build on existing Work Slate projects (University staff only), a table of which is included as Appendix 2.

Chapter 5 addresses key strategies in the areas of resource and cost allocation and the delivery of administrative and professional services, strategies that we believe to be essential if the financial sustainability of the University is to be assured. Chapter 6 is an epilogue that describes our vision of success for 2015.

After the approval of the Strategic Plan by the University Senate, there are three crucial next steps. First, SEG must agree divisional and faculty strategies that align with the direction that we have set for the University as a whole. This process should be finished in the first quarter of 2011. Second, SEG should agree implementation plans for the 17 strategies (or at least those that are not already underway) with the University-wide portfolios. Each of the strategies will give rise to a suite of Work Slate projects, the progress of which will be monitored and coordinated through the Work Slate process and thus reported through SEG to Senate. Work on these implementation plans should be finalised by the beginning of 2011. Third, the University services, such as Human Resources, ICT and Campus Infrastructure Services, must each agree with SEG their own responses to the Strategic Plan, and the program of work that they will undertake during the planning period to support it. These work plans will again be finalised by the beginning of 2011 and monitored and reported through the Work Slate.