“What we do affects people for the whole of their lives and we have to take that job very seriously.”

Probably the highest-profile person in the Australian university sector right now has tremendous knowledge, but few formal qualifications.

But Uncle Richard Fejo, Elder on Campus at Flinders University’s Poche Centre, last week, summed up the embrace of change that permeated last week’s Remaking HE conference.

A succession of university leaders had described how substantial change was already underway in teaching, recruitment and aspects of research as a result of the sudden chasm in university enrolments and revenue created by COVID-19.

Well-resourced and/or proactive institutions have clearly used the year to steal a march on change. No one assumes that we will ever return to past templates of massified, de-personalised course delivery – because pretty much everybody agrees that students will be seeking more.

Discussions with senior staff in preparation for the conference revealed that the reflection period forced onto the sector in 2020 has created space to reconsider how universities can demonstrate value not just to students, but also to communities.

In the process, the composition of the higher education workforce and the equity of access to not only take knowledge, but also make knowledge are now big issues for university planners.

All of which leads to Uncle Richie’s point, reconsidering the value of his knowledge as an Elder and Chair of the Larrakia Nation, as well as a Flinders’ staff member.

“Earlier in this week I was on a panel and someone asked, ‘what’s my knowledge worth?’” Uncle Richie said.

“I said, ‘Nothing, compared to the wellness of our community.

“It’s challenging, because we have so much cultural knowledge and quite often we just give it away. The problem for me is that if we didn’t nobody is going to and the status quo is going to remain.”

“We need to change that and change the status quo if we are going to bring two worlds together.”

That the pandemic is creating opportunities to change the status quo was a uniform theme across ReMaking HE.

There was a roar of twitterverse support for ANU Vice-Chancellor Professor Brian Schmidt’s criticism of research rankings and  the importance of open access publishing. The conversation was catalysed by the conference-launch of Curtin U’s new dashboard on Open Access rates internationally, and the broader question not just of who gets to read research – but also who gets to make it.

QUT VC Professor Margaret Shiel emphasised that despite the challenges of COVID-19 it was imperative that the sector did not lose the gains it had made in improving Indigenous employment and gender equity. This is significant given a relatively stubborn under-representation of women in senior academic roles and Indigenous staff in all roles across the sector during the golden growth years of the past decade.

HE recruitment specialist Rosalind de Sailly said it was clear that research-intensive universities had poorer rates of female representation than others – which contributed to the gender gap, and this would need to change if significant improvement was going to be seen.

Pressure on finances and changes to architecture post-COVID have led to new thinking about the future structure and use of campuses, ACU DVC Dr Stephen Weller said. Campuses needed to move away from being islands separate from community used for part of the year, and merge much more closely with businesses and communities – getting better engagement outcomes and better usage of facilities, Dr Weller said. Architect Kristen Whittle said the hot desk was dead and campus architecture would need to rapidly evolve to respond to the needs of both staff and students.

“This all comes back to understanding human behaviour,” Mr Whittle said.

“The world of the hot desk was really a con and the truth comes out eventually that it fundamentally doesn’t work.

“What we do affects people for the whole of their lives and we have to take that job very seriously.”

Professor Duncan Bentley, newly installed as vice chancellor at Federation University, observed that universities needed to transform their relationships with business – recognising that most of the Australian business sector were SMEs. VU Vice-Chancellor designate Adam Shoemaker went further, saying the notion of a university engaging with ‘industry’ invited a generic approach, and a far more nuanced, personalised engagement with individuals in business, community and government was required to build a stronger future.

Innes Willox, Australian Industry Group CEO said there were signs of improving engagement, and higher level qualifications for blue collar workers were overdue. University of Melbourne DVC Professor Kerri-Lee Krause agreed, indicating that consideration of new methods of teaching and curriculum development was already underway, to provide new methods to engage and win back the hearts and minds of students post-COVID. Her 2020 article on Vectors of change in higher education curricula provides a crystal window into many of the key issues – and opportunities imminent for faculties.

After a year of searing change, one factor is absolutely certain – nobody is planning to resume business as usual for 2021, once the airport lounges re-open and we edge into a post-COVID landscape. After a decade of uninterrupted growth perpetuated by a playbook that no-one dared up-date, the enrolment rout has thrown a circuit breaker – allowing university leaders to identify many opportunities for the higher education sector to build a stronger, more sustainable, engaged and equitable future.


Tim Winkler directed the Twig Marketing-CMM Remaking He conference


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