The state’s Legislative Council  inquiry into the provisions of the University of Tasmania Act 1992 has attracted 149 submissions. Many appear to be cries from the heart from people who don’t want change and a yearning for a world where university councils are savvy and managements not tangled in machiavellian death spirals.

For a couple of decades, there has a great obsession amongst those who only occasionally wander beyond the campus perimeter with recapturing the halcyon days of the Whitlam era where their rose-tinted rear view mirrors capture a utopian idyll of free education and research in the public interest.

That rear-view mirror never seems to capture the grim realities of a return to groovy uni – the relatively tiny number of students who had a chance to study, the small number of female students, the cultural and campus culinary desert that flourished in the absence of racial and ethnic diversity and the blood red stains ready to drip from the balance sheet.

While the Inquiry seems to be diverted towards an institution’s wrestle with its past, the University of Tasmania in the meantime appears to face two far more significant crises and the parliamentary inquiry will not solve either.

First, there has clearly been a megaton-level failure in the university’s communications strategy and execution. Let’s be clear, this is not about the university’s marketing and communications team, or even specific university leaders, but a whole of institution approach to understanding, engaging with and persuading key stakeholders over years, about the Big City Move, from Sandy Bay to the Hobart CBD.

What do I know about it? I have no direct knowledge of the University of Tasmania’s communications approach  but I have worked with 23 universities and reviewed more Australian university marketing and comms teams than anyone else and I can confidently say that a communications strategy of this scope needs to be underpinned by market research and evidence, guided by communications experts and owned by the university’s whole leadership team.

The clanging of discord ringing through media and parliament suggests the current approach hasn’t worked.

With any major strategy and infrastructure change, there will always be a mix of people who variously don’t hear you, misunderstand you, understand the change but don’t like it and people who just hate you and will cause trouble any way they can. There will also be those who like the idea and there need to be some high profile advocates for the cause, both inside and outside the institution.

There is always a suspicion that developing a communications strategy about structural and/or institutional change is some form of black magic, but for those of us who are usually positioned behind the stage curtain, the reality is that direct statements containing facts distributed at the right time through the right channels, addressing concerns and presenting fresh perspectives is usually all that is required.

Conspiracies and discontent fester in environments where detail is unavailable. Furthermore, and this should never come as a surprise to managements, but almost always does – if you suppress the hubris and step down off the pedestal long enough to listen and respond to people tactfully and frankly, they are much more likely to appreciate and absorb the information they are given.

It doesn’t take an inquiry to discern that a sea-change in communications strategy is overdue – and many of the current voices raised against the project would progressively be calmed with improved communications engagement.

Secondly, the issue for the University of Tasmania should not be about how closely the university’s operation and governance resembles the intent of the Act, or a 19th century conception of the purpose of a public university.

Rather, what needs to be addressed is what purpose does a university have for Tasmanians in 2022?

The Inquiry should be inundated with submissions from the wider community. Like the young people in tiny towns in Western Tasmania, so poor that they can’t afford a bus ticket out of town, who need a university which offers scholarships, pathways and flexible learning as an alternative to their only realistic pathway to work – joining the Australian Defence Force. Like  older alumni who fondly remember their time at Sandy Bay,  but would be reassured if they saw the  opportunity of the university relocating to Hobart’s CBD, and providing easier access to micro-credentials, public lectures, volunteering options and other meaningful engagement. Let alone plumbers, office administrators, pool cleaners, café owners – few of whom appear to be sufficiently engaged in the business of a university to bother making comment.

The parliamentary inquiry  provides a low-grade fireworks display which will be a distraction on the horizon of a few. The greater concern for the sector is that the future of the university is perceived to be inconsequential to so many others.

Tim Winkler is director of Twig Marketing


to get daily updates on what's happening in the world of Australian Higher Education