Following a successful APAC HE FEST, we interviewed Ian Marshman, University of Melbourne, about his perspective on higher education.
Hello, welcome Ian Marshman! Thank you for agreeing to speak with us today about strategy in Higher Education. Firstly, tell us, how do you think a university’s financial strategy will change in the ever increasing global mobility trend?
Ian: There will be a continuing decline in public finding, therefore universities have to be more self-contained in terms of managing their own revenue. So the key areas they have to focus on to increase revenue is in student and learning, expanding student numbers – in fact - we have seen certain universities significantly expand their student numbers just to generate revenue. Increasing student enrolment is the most attractive option for universities because it generates surpluses. The other area to look at is how to engage with industry, and build long term partnerships with industries with supportive research. Relying totally on student fee revenue to fund a university is ultimately flawed because once they become large it becomes hard to deliver their mission. Secondly the fee level some universities charge, is no longer viable in terms of return on investment.
What do you think universities can do right now to plan better for the future?
Firstly there is a greater need, more than ever before, for having a clear and relatively bold strategy. Institutions do need to determine agendas that are right for them and avoid the temptation of getting locked into some form of sector wide approach of doing things. So universities need to find their own mission and a strategy to deliver on that mission. Secondly, there is now this new generation of systems, learning analytics and business analytics which certainly compel universities to move on and shape their strategy by informed decision making, based on information and data rather than leading solely by intuition.
Sure, in the same way any business would do.
It’s no different, except universities have a traditional annual cycle and everything gradually evolves. In my time, I reckon I have seen most universities to be a product of the system and there is a tendency to operate in maintenance mode. As long as next year is roughly the same as the previous year, then everybody is relatively happy. It’s partly the way academic staff are actually allied to universities, they are not employees, instead they are like a series of independent contractors who basically work there. So they like things to be stable and have significant status quo. Then there is a relatively smaller number of universities that really want to change things and lead things in different directions. For universities to really optimize where they need to be in the future, they sort of have to move away from the status quo philosophy.
How do you think those individuals will cope with this change?
For some of them it’s quite challenging, others enjoy change. It requires significant management of change or leadership capabilities within the universities. In a corporate sector, one can develop a strategy, once the CEO determines it, people are locked in, and everyone can align their objectives according to the KPI. In a university one is dealing with a much more collegial environment rather than a hierarchical or bureaucratic one. So one needs to bring people on, by persuading them, convincing them, nurturing relationships, noting that they can break away from it at any point. It’s a very significant sort of leadership change. Particularly if it hasn’t happened before.
It’s people that create culture and change, ultimately you can implement any piece of technology, but if nobody adopts it or uses it, everything reverts back to what is usual and comfortable.
That leads me to the next question, how do you think technology will affect the business process of universities in 10 years’ time?
Technology is the ultimate enabler of the way in which universities are going to move in the next decade. One of the most important aspects of technology is it provide an information base through analytics which can provide a far deeper level of granularity of information to assist in planning and decision making. Technology will have an enormous impact on the way teaching and learning occurs. The digital disruption is going to happen on education too and technology will have a direct impact.
The other thing is that we are now teaching students who were born in the late 90s, these are digital natives. Regardless of how novel technology might be to the providers, to the consumers it’s very natural. So there is going to be a dramatic transformation as the consumers demand the product to be relevant according to current times, available online for better engagement. The ultimate learning device will be the mobile phone.
Do you think the student will choose a university based on how technologically savvy it is?
I think students traditionally still choose a university based on reputation rather than the course they are looking at. But as we talk about the millennial generation, they would be expecting the world to adapt to them rather than them adapt to the world. So ultimately it’ll become a consideration as to how easy it is for them to engage. All the interaction between universities and its key clients need to be web enabled and the consumers will expect nothing less than that. I think they will be still tolerant to what goes on in the classroom and academic arena, but all of the supporting systems need to be digitally enabled. We are not actually preparing them for future, if we don’t do that.
What advice would you give to all universities globally to prepare for the future?
My advice to universities is to be in charge of one’s own destiny. Be bold, be resilient and not be afraid to embark on a different course. There are instances that universities have been remarkable institutions and survived for more than 900years. In the end it’s about the quality of the leadership and the ability to communicate the vision to the community they represent. The other thing that universities really need to do is to keep in touch with the community constituency. Universities are in a lot more of a secure position if they enjoy the support and understanding of the community in which they operate. The real danger to universities is when they become alienated or distant from their communities. So, it is important that the return on investments that universities offer students is clearly understood and embraced, and it is important that the community understands the role universities play in shaping national economies and thought leadership. One of the problems in Australia in the last 20 years is, Australian universities became a bit distant from their communities, which meant they are relatively easy to ignore.
I guess that challenge is only going to get more difficult as communities get bigger, more globalized and universities have to think about how to maintain that global community. We know as a global organization at Tribal, how difficult it is just to ensure we liaise with our colleagues in different regions and different time zones.
So, Ian, knowing everything that you know now, what piece of advice would you give to your 18year old self?
I would say to pursue the course that you are really interested in, because that’s what will engage you and you’ll do well at, and your career will shape out of that. Choose a university that does have standing, that the degree you get is valued by the wider community. Make the most of your time, particularly as an undergraduate at university, engage and become actively involved in student and campus life. If you can afford it, go into university accommodation so you can have a deeply enriched period of education. Also not overly worry about the career or job outcomes at that time, particularly in undergraduate years. There is a lot of opportunities to shape that later on.
Which university did you go to?
I went to Melbourne, ANU.
Finally, for a bit of fun, what would be your one desert item essential, that you can’t live without?
It would be my IPAD.