Last week a higher education journal published my review of a new book by Griffith University professor Martin Betts on the Australian university sector’s pandemic responses during 2020-2022, and what forms of future shock may lie ahead.

Launched at this week’s Universities Australia conference, The New Leadership Agenda recounts how local lockdowns meant pushing campus-based programs, students and staff online. Meanwhile closed borders put fee revenue flows from international students at risk, and thus budgets, programs and jobs. During many long, hard months of operational crisis management, universities also faced new heights of strategic uncertainty.

The book speculates about what the sector’s post-crisis outlook will be as campuses (and borders) re-open; and as digital disruption creates further market shifts. Reading it led me back to some future of the sector speculation of my own, in May 2020. And to earlier work when teaching university leadership and management at the University of Melbourne.

As the old saying goes: prediction is difficult, especially about the future. Sector leaders will recall how, a decade ago, “massive open online courses” loomed large in Australia’s higher education landscape. Here’s my brief take on MOOCs in The Conversation (back in 2013):

“For most universities, MOOCs are both a threat and an opportunity. Terrific for the traditional academic mission but terrifying for the traditional business model. Once their quality is accepted as comparable to campus-based study, MOOCs represent what Harvard’s Clay Christensen calls a “disruptive innovation”, capable of reshaping an industry … In this future, students will face a wide range of fees for similar courses with different delivery channels. They’ll factor in the time, travel and living costs associated with fully online versus mainly campus-based study. Then, allowing for the brand recognition each institution confers with its degrees, they’ll choose their best option…”

How best to support the traditional university’s enlightenment mission in higher learning with a sustainable business model, currently reliant on multiple revenue streams from public and private sources? Martin Betts sees global EdTech providers now posing new disruptive threats to university markets and business models – and new opportunities. Along with much greater enterprise “agility” he sees a new strategic imperative to “partner or perish”:

“Partnerships with other educational service providers are increasing, particularly with the growth of educational technologies. The increasing focus on the student experience in an increasingly hybrid world for domestic and international students means that partnerships with technology service providers are growing in prominence. Universities will increasingly need strategies, policies, staff, and leaders with increasing interest, commitment, experience, and skill sets suited to identifying, forging, supporting, and optimising this growing variety of partnerships.”

In a 2017 scholarly paper on “Organising, leading and managing 21st century universities” I speculated about how Australia’s tertiary education ecosystem might evolve (see Charts 2 and 3 below). And what leaders and managers might need to consider, to create more “agile” (streamlined, responsive and innovative) universities (see Charts 6 and 7). In sum:

“Massive growth in student access, new knowledge production and new transmission channels signify success for the Western university’s traditional ‘enlightenment’ mission. Yet such trends also threaten traditional university business models, ways of organising, and staff identities. For university leaders, external engagement and partnership have become more critical to institutional capacity and mission attainment. These shifts imply new work roles and work processes within institutions. The quasi-monastic idea of the university as a ‘community of scholars’ is being recast as a multi-professional community of experts, more connected than ever before to other social sectors and enterprises…”

As Betts argues, to adapt to these shifts the sector will need to define new leadership agendas. But first, what were the business-as-usual leadership agendas in universities, even when not facing pandemic crises or warnings of digital disruption? In Chart 1 situated people, programs, systems and strategy in four institutional domains, each with its own priorities. Here I suggest four “mindsets” to help guide university leaders’ thinking as they introduce needed change, while balancing a host of other ongoing, often competing, demands.

Chart 1. See Sharrock in Visions for Australian Tertiary Education (MCSHE 2017)

As the 2017 paper put it: “In the Q1 and Q2 domains the main leadership task is to support front line professionals and programs as they work to fulfil institutional purposes, directly or indirectly. Most of this work occurs at a local department or program level where scholars and other professionals pursue or support the enlightenment agendas of higher learning. In the Q3 and Q4 domains, leaders are concerned primarily with the institution’s corporate and administrative functions. Here the focus of their work is on strategy and capacity building in the ‘enterprise’ domain; and governance, quality assurance and reporting in the ‘integrity’ domain. Thus enterprise capability agendas loom large for leaders, to secure resources, optimise processes and manage risk…”

My strategic backdrop for these considerations was digital-era disruption, with its already-heady mix of threats and opportunities: “Almost everywhere higher education faces growing enrolments, new external demands and inner transformation. In a more diversified, digitised and globalised economy of higher learning, elite scale morphs into mass scale, and campus-based communities reach for the cloud. As national sectors expand, their channels and connections multiply and the spread of higher learning accelerates. As the digital era makes knowledge hyper-abundant and hyper-accessible, societies benefit hugely … But this learning boom has boomerang effects (for universities). To date the digital era has been great for the mission and grand for the brand; but it may yet be grim for the business model … change will arise from a mix of more open access to study, more digital learning channels, extensive industry integration, the rise of global scale providers, more mobile talent, and more highly contestable student and employer markets…”

For university leaders many of these ideas would have been familiar; not least from years of reports by consulting firms: “a 2012 Ernst and Young report by Justin Bokor identified the mix of ‘change drivers’ for Australian higher education … These imply national policy and domestic market shifts, meshed with global trends such as the rise of online learning and of new entrants in a more open, fluid and competitive sector. This is a potent combination. It has potential to transform the Australian public university sector as new types of provider with more diverse business models emerge…” (See Chart 2).

In that report Bokor envisaged three broad types of future higher learning provider:

  • a “streamlined status quo” that is still broad based but much more efficient
  • “niche dominators” specialising in targeted areas of need, and
  • “transformers” bridging the higher education and other sectors such as media…
Chart 2 See Sharrock in Visions for Australian Tertiary Education (MCSHE 2017)

From this and other reports, here’s my take from 2017: “In these future scenarios lower operating costs, greater flexibility and greater external engagement are seen as essential responses by existing institutions. The crucial unknowns here are: the extent of coming changes to models and methods and how rapidly these will unfold; and in turn, what degree of disruption will follow…” And a plausible prospect was the more diversified “ecosystem” predicted in 2012 for UK higher education, by Tom Kennie and Ilfryn Price (Chart 3).

Chart 3 See Sharrock in Visions for Australian Tertiary Education (MCSHE 2017)

My speculation then was: “It is not hard to imagine such a future in the Australian context. But this implies potentially quite disruptive degrees of change to an Australian higher education landscape currently dominated by the public university sector. Around 40 universities all perform teaching, research and engagement functions, with degree program teaching heavily campus-based for most … Facing such risks and constraints, how can leaders guide and adapt an already large, complex, multi-task and multi-stakeholder academic enterprise?”

In The New Leadership Agenda Betts argues along similar lines, that in a far more diversified higher education system, university strategic agendas must also diversify. Since 2020, he suggests, the pandemic crisis has been a catalyst for more rapid uptake of new ways of working: a “burning platform” that forced everyone to change how they worked, ready or not.

Again, for university leaders the big question is: beyond the crisis, how will further market shifts unfold? In 2020 I suggested that by compelling universities to push so much of their work into online modes, the pandemic raised the prospect of a “corona crisis curve” (Chart 4). This might follow the shifts predicted by earlier thinkers who applied the disruptive innovation “hype cycle” model of market adaptation via MOOCs a decade ago.

Chart 4 See Sharrock, Higher education: survive the tempest, plan for more sea-change (2020)

This mixed-mode, multi-market future of post-secondary study presents a host of challenges for universities. Not least the emergence of non-degree credentials that employers recognise and value, and that other kinds of providers are well able to offer at very low cost. In a 2018 commentary on tertiary education reform issues in The Conversation, I set out some implications (see Chart 5):

“…we’ve seen wide experimentation with new types of micro-credentials. These represent the accomplishment of short study, training or project assignments, often focused on enterprise skills. Small and stackable units of learning may count for credit towards a degree. Or supplement one by certifying wider sets of capabilities valued by employers. As portfolio careers become mainstream, a subset of the emerging streams of micro-credentials that specify what learners know and can do in more detail will gain wider acceptance…”

Chart 5. See Sharrock, Six things Labor’s review of tertiary education should consider (The Conversation)

One sign of tertiary system evolution along these lines is a reported decline in Masters degree enrolments. As University of Sydney vice-chancellor Mark Scott told the Australian Financial Review workforce summit this week: “students are waiting for something more specific and more targeted to their individual workplace, rather than a more generic postgraduate experience … part of the challenge for University of Sydney is to make sure those postgraduate courses are as good and relevant to target as they can be … More short courses, more modular courses, specifically targeting workplace needs and I think more radical action over time, working more in partnership with major corporations to help them in their professional development.”

Competing with non-university providers to meet market demand for shorter, sharper courses may well pose some challenges for existing campus-based universities. Typically, they carry high-cost “back-office” functions and have slow approval process for new programs. In the 2017 paper I mapped some of these legacy system complexities: “For established Australian universities, the historical accretion of structures, systems, policies and procedures to support this complexity often creates fragmented and overly bureaucratic approaches to both academic and administrative work…”

In part this arises from the wide array of players and projects they seek to support. The four domains shown at Chart 1 also need to meet many regulatory requirements. In 2017 some key phrases drawn from Australia’s (now superseded) 2011 Higher Education Standards Framework served to illustrate the complexity (Chart 6).

Chart 6 See Sharrock in Visions for Australian Tertiary Education (MCSHE 2017)

In sum, today’s universities are large, complex, highly-regulated, multi-purpose, multi-market institutions, financed by a mixed bag of revenue sources. So how do leaders set about making them more “agile” enterprises, without creating confusion and instability, and risking chaos?

Big business experience offers some lessons for universities here. The 2017 paper drew on some McKinsey reporting on agility in 2015: “In their discussion of organisational agility in large scale business enterprises, Wouter Aghina and his McKinsey colleagues describe three types of decision in any system of governance:

  • Type 1 – high stakes decisions
  • Type 2 – decisions that require cross-unit dialogue and collaboration
  • Type 3 – day to day front line decisions.

They note that Type 2 decisions are the most likely to hinder an enterprise’s capacity for agility. For this, big businesses need to combine a “stable backbone” and “dynamic capability” (see Chart 7).

At the time I suggested that these Type 2 decisions: “tend to proliferate in universities. Widely supported in principle as a form of ‘collegiality’, in practice they may also induce cultures of complaint or veto wherever ‘consultation’ fails to produce any clear ‘consensus’ … Type 2 decision making processes often reflect a collaborative ethos. But they also arise from incompatible IT systems, overly complex consultative procedures, under-delegation, unclear decision rights, risk aversion and internal politics when resources are at stake…”

The McKinsey report presented the system design challenge with a useful smartphone analogy: a core operating system or “backbone” supporting a wide array of “applications”, each with its own design features. In the case of higher education, I asked, what would the “smartphone university” look like?

“Universities are not alone in their need to become more streamlined, creative and innovative. Aghina et al. examine common challenges to achieving agility … They argue that there is often a false trade-off between the need to be fast and flexible, and the need for scale and stability. Using a smartphone analogy, they suggest that the main organisational design challenge is to create a highly functional core operating system: clear, simple, transparent and reliable for all parties. In turn this must support a dynamic application layer that offers high flexibility to add, modify, scale up or shut down diverse products, services and projects…”

“As with smartphones, much of the value generated by academic enterprises resides in their diverse, expanding and renewable ecosystem of programs. These connect enlightenment projects in the academic domain to a spectrum of partners, clients and other stakeholders. This ‘apps layer’ comprises the institution’s portfolio of course subjects, degree programs, research programs and engagement projects in the Q2 ‘creative engagement’ domain … many worthwhile projects compete for scarce staff time, management attention and budget support…”

For universities, then: “the ongoing design challenge is to simplify core systems and institutional policy settings while avoiding ‘one size fits all’ service solutions and ‘one best way’ decision processes. Aghina et al. suggest that achieving the right blend of stable backbone and dynamic capability allows large established institutions to benefit from their existing resource base, scale and profile; but also, crucially, to innovate rapidly to create new products, services and start-ups.”

Chart 7 See Sharrock in Visions for Australian Tertiary Education (MCSHE 2017)

The smartphone analogy suggests that a 21st century university’s core systems and policies in the Q3 system integrity domain (Chart 1) must establish clear, reliable and transparent controls at the governance level to create the “stable backbone”. Most of the agile “apps” layer work sits in the Q2 creative engagement domain. Here agility may be constrained if too many “start-up” projects compete for too few resources; or for too little management bandwidth in the Q4 sustainable enterprise domain of overall strategy.

As the McKinsey diagnostic at Chart 7 suggests, a “trapped” work culture features poor cross-unit collaboration internally, political tribalism and turf wars between old and new programs and their protectors and promoters. None of this will be news to university leaders: as Betts notes, in the 1960s University of California president Clark Kerr described “a series of individual faculty entrepreneurs held together by a common grievance over (car) parking”. And as Kerr put it in his first lecture at Harvard in 1963, the leader of the modern multiversity is not a ruling monarch, but (mostly) a mediator, who works at keeping the peace while promoting progress, but without imposing innovation directly: “in the control tower helping the real pilots make their landings without crashes”.

Last but not least, developments like these do seem to have significant implications for the structure of the university workforce. As the 2017 paper put it: “Australian universities will need to compete and contribute in a wider and more dynamic ecosystem … A ‘50 shades of blended learning’ future implies a workforce of ‘blended multi-professionals’ with wider networks and greater mobility within and beyond their host institutions. For example, in student learning a wider range of courses and support tasks will reflect ever more co-produced, blended, scaled-up, out-sourced, automated and personalised modes of delivery. This prospect of ‘unbundling’ the design, delivery, assessment and credentialing pathways of courses of study implies a rewrite of traditional scholarly work roles built around the campus-based research-teaching nexus…”

A lot of business and management literature shows that in complex organisations, leading system-level change is extraordinarily difficult – and that plans only rarely go to plan. Here’s John Kotter, writing in the mid-1990s in the Harvard Business Review: “Over the past decade, I have watched more than 100 companies try to remake themselves into significantly better competitors … in almost every case, the basic goal has been the same: to make fundamental changes in how business is conducted in order to help cope with a new, more challenging market environment. A few of these corporate change efforts have been very successful. A few have been utter failures. Most fall somewhere in between, with a distinct tilt toward the lower end of the scale. The lessons that can be drawn are interesting and will probably be relevant to even more organizations in the increasingly competitive business environment of the coming decade…”

In large, established universities especially, the challenge seems at least as complex. Here’s Andrew Szeri et al in 2013, reflecting on their own change project designed to “do much more with less at the University of California” through operational excellence: “Organizational change is always hard to accomplish. Change at universities is even more difficult: decision rights are less tightly defined; constituencies are more varied; organizational boundaries are more ambiguous. Research universities tend to be more decentralized, which makes a centrally driven change effort more difficult to lead. There is also often a culture that results in a high degree of risk aversion…”

In academic institutions the structural ambiguity of managerial leadership, where competing aims and interests proliferate and intersect, is inescapable. It soon becomes visible when experienced practitioners set out to summarise what they have to do. Here’s Geoff Garrett and Graeme Davies in their 2010 book Herding Cats: Being advice to aspiring academic and research leaders: “nurture diverse perspectives, but these need to be channelled. We must be competitive but work in partnerships, action-oriented but reflective, planned but opportunistic. Change is critical, but so is the stability provided by continuity. Analysis is key, but so is making use of your intuition. Organisationally, we can appropriately centralise but empower through decentralisation; be big in scope and power but ‘small’ in terms of responsiveness…”

Along with inherent complexity, unpredictable market shifts, public policy reforms and emerging technology challenges, for Australian university leaders there will always be plenty of internal and external politics along the way. As Machiavelli advised political leaders back in 1513, leading system-level innovation is always a risky business (Chart 8).

Over to you, vice-chancellors – and good luck!

Chart 8 Image source: Wikimedia Commons

Notes and further reading from this author

I hereby confirm that ChatGPT did not write this commentary. And I hope that students, scholars and practitioners of university leadership and management will find some of this material useful.

Six things Labor’s review of tertiary education should consider (2018) in The Conversation

Organising, leading and managing 21st century universities (2017) in Visions for Australian Tertiary Education

Book review of The Dream is Over: the crisis of Clark Kerr’s California idea of higher education (blog 2016/2020)

Making sense of the MOOCs debate (2015) in Journal of Higher Education Policy and Management

Book review of A History of the Modern Australian University (2015) in Journal of Higher Education Policy and Management

Communicating spending cuts: lessons for Australian university leaders (2014) in Journal of Higher Education Policy and Management

Book review of The Dawkins Revolution, 25 Years On (2013) in The Conversation

From MOOCs to HARVARDs: will online go mainstream? (2013) in The Conversation

Four management agendas for Australian universities (2012) in Journal of Higher Education Policy and Management

Book review of Herding Cats: Being advice to aspiring academic and research leaders (2011) in Australian Universities Review

Leadership of the Modern University (2011) (with Glyn Davis) in Dispersed Democratic Leadership: Origins, Dynamics & Implications

Two Hippocratic Oaths for Higher Education (2010) in Journal of Higher Education Policy and Management

After Copernicus: Beyond the Crisis in Australian Universities in Australian Universities Review (2007)

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