Perspectives from Down Under

By Watson Scott Swail, President and CEO, Educational Policy Institute

MELBOURNE, AUSTRALIA – I have had the fortune and pleasure over the past few weeks to spend time in New Zealand and Australia. The main attraction was the annual Australia Tertiary Education Management (ATEM) Conference in Christchurch, New Zealand, where Ian Dobson, EPI’s Australasia Director, and myself were conducting a series of workshops on student retention and success.

The challenges facing tertiary education down under are similar to those faced by Western nations: increased competition for students and funding, concerns about instructional and campus quality, (in)equality in tertiary access, and course/degree completion. Perhaps I shouldn’t have been surprised, but Australia and New Zealand exist in a much different environment than North America, Europe, or even Asia due to their geographic isolation. In the US, we have debates about illegal immigrants and college access; in Europe, via the Bologna Agreement, there exist cross-country enrollment patterns which are foreign to Australia and New Zealand. Still, the issues facing tertiary education in these two countries ring familiar.

For instance, over the next decade, the number of school leavers (i.e., high school graduates) in Australia will decrease by about 5 percent. Not a huge percentage or number (about 35,000 students), but in a tertiary economy where growth has been the norm of recent memory, this tends to increase competition between institutions, causing a whole series of dominoes to begin to take their place.

Like the US, the policy discussions are moving from those of access to that of success; getting students in the door isn’t sufficient. The true challenge is getting them to graduate. According to participants in our workshops, the reasons for tertiary dropout also rings familiar to those of us who have conducted research on these issues for the past several decades: insufficient financial resources, academic underpreparedness, social pressures, and, of course, unclear expectations and guidance.

And, like us, higher education leaders and practitioners are battling with the difficult task of determining what strategies and pathways to follow to increase student success. Per our workshop discussions, the causes for student departure are understandably complex; thus, so should it be expected that the solutions are similarly complex. There are no one-shot solutions; student retention is hard work, better aided by thoughtful reflection, competent analysis, and visionary leadership.

One such leader is Dr. Elizabeth (Liz) Harmon, the Vice Chancellor (VC) of Victoria University in Melbourne. In Australia, the VC is equivalent to a university president in the US and Canada. Liz has both the power and the responsibility. At ATEM, Dr. Harmon provided a plenary presentation about the recent trajectory of Victoria University, an 11-campus system in the metropolitan Melbourne area. VU, like other universities, has shown enormous growth over the past few decades, but the downturn in high school graduates between now and 2019 (and, in fact, estimates 20 years out show that the number of graduates will not reach current levels) exist as a large and looming barrier to institutional growth and development.

VU is undertaking a broad and diverse approach to student success over the next several years. Dr. Harmon invoked the term “investing in the future” in both the title and content of her presentation. The oft-cited term obviously isn’t unique in itself, but the VU focus on changing core elements of practice and philosophy in VU’s investment strategy is to a degree. Akin to placing money into the stock markets (which doesn’t sound like a great idea right now), VU’s strategy is to strategically align its services and strategies toward linking the university to the needs of the community, business, and industrial sectors in the greater Melbourne area. To do this, Dr. Harman spoke of five commitments (or drivers of change) for “Making VU.” These included:

Collaboration. VU is working together with 12 industry and community clusters to define their collective future;

Career. VU is linking their educational programs directly with the marketplace by increasing the percentage of workplace assignments for students;

Choices. Providing students customized (sorry, customized) student learning experience that provide unique learning opportunities to “fit” the student;

Connected. VU is looking at trends in business and industry to provide the education needed by future employees—today’s students; and

Community. A disciplined, community-based strategy to ensure that VU is working toward the betterment of its environs. A commitment to making Melbourne and Australia a better place.

It is easy to cast these off as broad and vague operatives. We’ve seen these initiatives before, and, ultimately, we’ll see them again. My buy-in came during the discussion of how these commitments will be actualized in the field. For instance, VU is creating the VU Student Dividend, a measurement of the “value added” for students, so that stakeholders—including students, staff, and community, understand the impact of what VU provides (shouldn’t we all be doing this???). Second, VU will work to change the staffing culture at their campuses by energizing staff and providing resources to engage staff in this evolution. Third, the VU initiative is building a culture based on evidence, where future practice and teaching is connected to the findings of institutional and related research on tertiary education. Finally, a commitment not to simply invite the community and workforce into VU, but rather, take VU out to them—become a partner in the field by providing resources (students and staff) to provide a unique connection with the world outside the institutions. VU plans to extend its distance education and work-based learning programs to extend their research.

I can’t vouch for how successful Victoria University will be, but they’ve put a plan in place that, at the very least, should be of great interest to the rest of us in the world of higher education. We’re all looking for answers to a very difficult and complex puzzle. I often comment that we know most of these answers; what we miss is the structure for putting solutions in place. Let’s keep an eye on VU and other institutions to learn about the organizational strategies to student success.

If you are further interested in this issue, we invite you to Retention 2009 in New Orleans next May. EPI is working with Victoria University to bring Dr. Harmon to the Big Easy to talk about her perspective on student success and the institutional commitment necessary to make real, lasting change happen on campus.

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