At the beginning of the month I attended the annual Universities Australia Conference in Canberra. It is a big event on the Australian higher education calendar and it’s where you’ll find the nation’s vice-chancellors, chancellors, senior university representatives, government representatives, industry representatives, members of the research community, international education specialists, and media, all under one roof, for one week only. It’s where we go to think – and to find out what the Department is thinking.
I chaired a panel session called Staying Ahead of Disruption. So many people keep saying that universities are educating students for jobs that won’t exist when they graduate, the organisers wanted a take on how universities continue to deliver on their core purpose while disruptions abound. But rather than just have universities talking to universities, this session had senior industry representatives on the panel to let us know what they thought. As chair, I got to give the introductory remarks. I had originally intended on extolling the virtues of an end-user informed education and partnered research and the value of graduate qualities – but the preceding day of the conference had been doom laden with dystopic views of the rise of the robots and the demise of face to face education – it seemed disruption was upon us.
So I improvised. And said this:
“Yesterday was the last day of summer, so I believe I can now state, without fear of hyperbole, that winter is coming.
The more astute among us have known this since before Christmas. But take heart in the hope that the warming sun of the demand-driven system may one day rise again.
In the meantime we need to deal with the disruption.
The People of the North – those of you who read the books or watched Game of Thrones on TV, you’ll know, those of you that haven’t, just nod along. It’s popular culture. You’ll pick it up by osmosis. For the uninitiated, or those that dwell under rocks, it’s not a board game, but it does somewhat mirror university politics and management, if you cross it with The Office.
Earlier today, Dame Anne Glover (former Scottish Chief Scientist, biologist and academic at the University of Aberdeen) warned what happens when we don’t value knowledge.
The People of the North knew winter was coming. But they didn’t plan for it. They weren’t prepared for its arrival, and, as a consequence, they were significantly disrupted.
Most recently by a big blue dragon and visual FX supplied by graduates of my university.
What we have seen over the last few days is that disruption can and should be anticipated;
disruption to funding streams;
disruption from policy change;
disruption from technology shifts;
disruption from shifting stakeholders’ expectations.
Fail to plan, plan to fail runs the old idiom. Anthony McLaren, Chief Executive of TEQSA (the Australian Government’s Tertiary Education Quality and Standards Agency), said yesterday that good governance of a university should include a doomsday scenario plan (my paraphrasing), the plan of what you would do in the face of terminal disruption – how to wind up your business.
Our strategies should be plans to prevent ourselves going out of business, but are more often plans which are predicated on the continuity of business, incremental innovation and growth – none of which can be guaranteed.
We heard yesterday how our humanity – and the soft skills we can cultivate in our graduates – will be our only differentiator against the backdrop of technological disruption.
Will that be sufficient to allow us to stay ahead of disruption, or will it merely provide a coping mechanism for us to endure being disrupted?
We know that culture eats strategy for breakfast, which means that clever organisations must place culture at the heart of strategies to deal with disruption.
Can the attributes of awareness and agility in institutional culture keep us ahead? Is it enough to keep our heads above water or should we be seeking to surf the waves of inevitable disruption?”
The lesson from the panel – you can adapt to deal with change. The lesson from my introduction – not everyone finds Game of Thrones references amusing, but I do, and it was my intro.
The hidden message in the intro, and why I’m sharing it here again – ours is an outstanding institutional culture, it will stand us in great stead in the months and years ahead as we deal with the reality of external disruption and get on to deliver on our plans.
Professor David Lloyd
Vice Chancellor and President