Monday, July 31, 2006

UNE Strategic Planning - Scoping Issues

My last post - On Rabbitohs, Welsman and the University of New England - concluded that the the silver rabbits given to the South Sydney players were a device to motivate the players by linking the present and past. I suggested that maybe that's what we need with with UNE.

My key point here is that the broader UNE community - alumni, present students, past and present staff, other stakeholders - need something to believe in, to reinforce their links with and support for the institution and its future. The strategic planning exercise will have failed if it does not deliver this.

I now want to extend my argument by looking at some scoping issues. Here I write as an insider, outsider. Insider because of my long standing links with the place, outsider because I am not there, am not caught up in current internal issues and structures.

As I see it, UNE has become far too inward looking and introspective. In a strange way the place has shrunk in its own perception of itself.

I first became aware of this trend when I returned to UNE in 1981 as a full time postgraduate student in history.

I grew up with the early College and University. Then I was a full time student there from 1963-1966.

Early UNE staff struggled with remote location and limited resources. They knew that they had to fight, to be better, simply to survive. They were actively involved in the broader New England community and far beyond. There was active intellectual debate.

The internal student body was small - there were only around 1,200 full time internal undergraduates - but diverse, drawing together kids from the North Coast who were the first in their family to go to University with academic's children and overseas students brought to Armidale by the Columbo Plan. The overseas student proportion was quite high (probably over 10 per cent) and very visible, with the Overseas Students Association being the largest student society. Relations between staff and students were close.

By 1981 when I came back to study full time again, the University was much bigger, yet somehow it seemed to have shrunk.

Part of the changes such as the abolition of the ubiquitous green gown that all undergraduates had to wear were a reflection of broader social change during the seventies. But I also thought that the growth had created a degree of complacency, that people were far more concerned with immediate internal issues, less with the external world outside the University and its immediate environs.

The University's international reach, while greater in absolute terms, had declined in relative terms. The active regional outreach programs across the broader New England had also declined.

This was the start of a period of rapid change in Australian tertiary education. The University really struggled to cope. I think that the earlier more outward looking and aggressive UNE would have managed this period far better simply because it knew, collectively, that it had be better just to survive. The University as it had become seemed to suffer an almost fatal loss of confidence.

I was again back in Armidale for much of this period. I was distressed by the way in which the place seemed to have lost its sense of its own past. I also that found the University's constant changes of directions, its slow decision processes made it very difficult to work with the place on specific development projects.

An example.

Over 1994 through to early 1996 I was involved in two projects. One was the attempt to create an electronic network, the Collective Wisdom project, linking all Armidale educational institutions to, among other things, showcase what was possible. The second was the attempt to create a cooperative multimedia centre under the then Commonwealth Government's cooperative multimedia centre program. Both required UNE to lead if they were to work. This was simply not possible.

UNE stabilized under Ingrid. Many good things have been done, some of which are referred to in the discussion paper. But I still think that it remains too inward looking and Armidale focused. I think that this comes out in the planning paper itself.

Had UNE done this exercise in 1965, the regional market would have been defined in terms of the broader New England, tablelands, western slopes, plains, coastal strip, hunter. Now this has apparently shrunk to the New England Tablelands and North West. This is a not insignificant change when you come to look at potential student numbers. There would also have been a strong focus on the University's role in the economic, social and community development in this broader region, linking this to broader regional development.

The discussion paper's focus on regional development is welcome, although I also think that it is unbalanced. It is, I think, sad to say but true that UNE's position in regional development has actually declined since the University lost sight of its broader regional role.

Another example.

My historical studies in the early eighties had a strong focus on regional movements in Australia and especially in the broader New England New State area. There was then a very strong postgraduate group from Diploma up to PhD working on local, regional and family history, providing valuable interaction. Earlier theses were an invaluable resource. The Dixon Library local history collection covered the proposed New England state area from the Hunter up.

Given all this, I actually argued that the UNE should seek to position itself as the national leader in regional, local and family history. This was just too hard to get up at the time. So what happened? The number of students in this area appears to have fallen, the scope of work done appears to have narrowed, the Dixon Library local collection now I think just covers New England North West.

Had UNE done this exercise in 1965, there would have been a strong focus on external studies where UNE was the dominant national provider. The focus is there in the discussion paper, but now the concern is the erosion in UNE's position with the University in third place. The paper does not fully address why this has happened, what is required to turn the position around.

Had UNE done this exercise in 1965, there would have been a strong focus on areas where the University had a measure of national strength, including the development of Australia's rural industries.

I know that UNE has areas of national and international strength. I would be interested to see a discussion of these and how they fit or do not fit with the proposed direction.

This has become a very long post. So I will finish with a plea for a the University to shift its focus away from little New England, big Armidale to look more broadly at what it has been, what it has, what it might be.

In my next post I will look at markets, marketing issues and some of New England's core strengths as I see them.

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