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Reclaiming gold: Australian universities need data and strategy to rebound

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In this edition of NousCast Shorts we speak to Nous founder Tim Orton and Cubane founder Edward Curry-Hyde about the strong past performance of Australian universities and how quality data and strategic thinking can help them once again thrive. 

You can find out more about Tim Orton and Edward Curry-Hyde, and read their article, Our universities have been gold medallists before – here’s how they can do it again, on the Nous website. 

About NousCast Shorts

The NousCast Shorts podcast series brings you fresh thinking on some of the biggest challenges facing organisations today. Each episode of NousCast Shorts will feature a rapid-fire interview with a Nous consultant about an emerging issue in their area of expertise – in about the time it takes to have a cup of coffee. 

"So how does each Australian university come back? The fundamentals are the same: be outstanding in each university activity – research, teaching and administration. We believe Australian universities must strive for top quartile performance, to overcome the international student handicap."

Dr Edward Curry-Hyde 

Cubane Founder

Ari Sharp: Hello and welcome to NousCast Shorts, a podcast that brings you short and sharp insights from the team at Nous Group, an international management consultancy. I'm your host, Ari Sharp, and today on NousCast Shorts we're talking about what's next for Australian higher education in the wake of the pandemic.

We're lucky today to be joined by two guests who have decades of experience in the field. Tim Orton is the Founder & Managing Principal of Nous Group. Tim leads seminal Nous projects, and is a sought-after advisor to leaders across the public, private and nonprofit sectors in Australia, Canada and the UK.

Also joining me is Edward Curry-Hyde, the founder of Cubane Consulting, which recently became a Nous Group company. Over the past 11 years, Edward has led Cubane's efforts to build the UniForum service offering that has now provided insights to over 50 universities globally on ways to transform their efficiency and effectiveness. Recently, Tim and Edward have been looking at the major forces impacting on higher education in Australia and around the world. They've looked at how the sector has been impacted by COVID-19 and what's required to achieve excellence given the headwinds. Let's hear what they found.

Tim Orton and Edward Curry-Hyde, welcome to NousCast Shorts.

Edward Curry-Hyde: Thank you.

Tim Orton: Good to be with you.

Ari Sharp: Edward, some people reckon that our universities are underperforming and had become a bit reliant on international students, so when the coronavirus hit, they were in some financial trouble – but what does the data show?

Edward Curry-Hyde: The data shows that Australian universities don't earn the same as UK and Canadian universities earn from domestic students coming through the gate. They’re not reliant like a coffee shop is reliant on coffee drinkers – no, universities have instead made up for that differential by being entrepreneurial, with that differential being as much as seven per cent different between the UK and Australia. They made up for that differential by pursuing international students and growing their income from that. That has funded a lot of the things they have delivered: we’ve seen quite astounding performance by the Australian universities over the last 15 years.

Ari Sharp: Tim, if I can turn to you, some Australian universities do regularly appear in the global rankings of higher education. What's the trend in the performance of Australian institutions?

Tim Orton: Actually, it's surprisingly positive, in that if you go back to 2005, we had nine in the top 300 in one of the ranking measures. Move on to 2020 and we have 15. Now you might say, "Oh, nine to 15, that's a small difference." In fact, it's a huge difference because at the same time in comparable countries such as the UK, US and Canada, numbers have fallen, because many universities from China and Asian countries have come into the top 300. So it's been a highly competitive space, and the Australian universities have done better than comparable countries and done better than anyone except for China in that 15-year period. They’ve been incredibly high performing. If this was – as Edward and I have said elsewhere – if this was the Olympics, we're medal winners.

Ari Sharp: Tim, the rankings that you're looking at, they typically – for universities – look at things like research output and student performance. I know Nous has done some work looking at how community engagement can be measured. What did you find from that work?

Tim Orton: The work we did was inspired by a realisation by a number of universities – in this case the University of Chicago; King's College, London; and the University of Melbourne, who was a client for the work. They essentially realised that rankings matter for universities in terms of where they choose to invest their resources, and therefore it would be of value to measure engagement. So we developed an eight-metric measure that looked at industry engagement, effect on community and outcomes for community, and which we trialed with 20 universities. They said it looked very positive, and so it's being rolled out now as a very effective way of measuring engagement.

Interestingly, at the same time, Times Higher, who are an important ranking agency, developed a set of measures around the sustainability development goals. That's also been used and, interestingly, many Australian universities have scored very well on those sustainability development goals as a measure of engagement. We would say that our engagement measures are probably more accurate measure of engagement and it'll be interesting to see how universities’ interest in them develops. But it is the third part of what universities hold to be important; that is, the way they engage with the community, the society, the economy around them.

Ari Sharp: Edward, when it comes to the major functions of a university – thinking of teaching, research and administration – what goal do you think Australian universities should be aiming for?

Edward Curry-Hyde: In looking at the sorts of things that Tim has just been talking about – the performance of the Australian universities and improving the rankings – what's become clear is that they've got to be top quartile in all the areas in which they're operating: in their research and the ability to generate output from the income that they're getting, and in their teaching and administration. So top quartile performance is critical.

Tim Orton: As Edward explained, Australian universities are – relatively speaking – less well-funded than universities in other countries. Therefore, the challenge for Australian universities is essentially to do more with less. In practice they've been doing that very effectively for 20 years because they tend to be more entrepreneurial, they tend to be more imaginative, they tend to be less constrained by the conservatism of the past. We should be very proud of what our Australian universities achieve because they've brought a much more ambitious and energetic agenda to their task than we see in other countries.

Edward Curry-Hyde: Adding to what Tim's just been talking about, we know from our comparisons to the equivalent universities in the UK that Australian universities get around 30% less research income. Yet despite that, they have outperformed Canadian and UK universities by as much as 100% – so twice the rate of getting research publications into top journals.

Ari Sharp: Tim, thinking about research, what do you see as the current strengths of Australian universities and where do you see room for improvement?

Tim Orton: Australian universities are interesting in that they've more actively chosen where they want to be strong and where not. Some of the data that Cubane have assembled demonstrates that Australian universities over the last decade of improvement have increased the number of researchers per field-of-research. They're now up at about 30 researchers per field-of-research, and the reason that's important is because you can do much better-quality research with a critical mass of researchers, whereas other universities – some of the smaller universities in Australia but also some universities overseas – across many research fields have a subcritical mass. So critical mass does matter, and you have to design for it, and the best universities around the world and the universities in Australia that have improved their research performance the most have actively designed for in where they want to put their research effort and have actively decided the areas they're not going to participate in as much.

Edward Curry-Hyde: And that's one of the ways that they're making the lower research funding go further: by consolidating their investments and by building critical mass (actually drawing in high-performing researchers from around the world).

Ari Sharp: Picking up on the teaching function of universities, many universities have proven themselves remarkably nimble in moving online during the pandemic. What are some of the challenges now that many students are studying in a hybrid form mixing online and offline?

Edward Curry-Hyde: Yes. Ari, we've seen across universities now, having moved rapidly online: they've all applied quite a variety of ways of doing that. That's leading to quite a mixed experience for the students, and I think that's going to be one of the challenges going forward: how to now refine that with effectively a 2.0 version of online teaching in a way that provides a coherent experience for the students.

Ari Sharp: Tim, with the closure of borders, there have been very few international students coming to Australia this year. What do you expect in the future? What does it mean for universities?

Tim Orton: So firstly, closure of borders in Australia: yes. Closure of borders elsewhere: far less the case, if at all. International students have slowed around the world, but there's still an enormous backlog of demand for high quality education, and the flow of international students will increase again. There is a real question for Australia as an island, which has isolated itself from the world, as to how's it going to participate in that. Our policy settings combined with the Australian universities’ marketing efforts meant that we were leading the world. Our policy settings now mean that we'll either be lagging or we'll have a big handicap we've got to overcome. So, speaking to some vice-chancellors, some of them have said that in their most optimistic view, our international student numbers of 2019 will not return until 2029.

So at the moment, at least, it looks like the efforts that Australian governments have made to keep the people safe will have a long-lasting, challenging, or negative effect on the international student market for Australia. We could talk for a long time about the pluses and minuses of that, but that's the reality for Australian universities. It will be difficult.

Ari Sharp: Can I ask about the trends that you're expecting to see in domestic student enrollments? Typically, when the economy struggles and jobs are scarce, you'll have a sort of influx of students to universities. The job market's actually held up pretty well in Australia. What are you expecting to see?

Edward Curry-Hyde: Actually, we're seeing from the universities that are members of the UniForum program quite a material uptick in domestic student numbers, particularly in the postgraduate courses as well – so master’s and other postgraduate studies. That has slightly dampened the effect of the international student, but by no means makes up for it.

Tim Orton: It's worth noting that those numbers would be from students making decisions in September, October and November of last year, when things were looking very difficult – to your point, Ari – about what would happen in the future. I think that uptick may be moderate – but that's me forecasting or speculating rather than with certainty.

Ari Sharp: Edward, you've told us a bit about how Australian universities are performing. What are you seeing with institutions overseas?

Edward Curry-Hyde: Ari, we're working in the UK and Canada, and they've watched very carefully what the Australian universities have been doing. Universities are very international organisations. They respond quickly to seeing ways that others might be able to... things that they might be able to pick up from others. We expect that this advantage that the Australian universities have enjoyed is going to be short-lived. These other universities are learning very quickly how to be successful in the international market and how to get more out of their research spend than they have done in the past.

Ari Sharp: Tim Orton, Edward Curry-Hyde, thanks for talking to NousCast Shorts.

Tim Orton: Thanks very much, Ari.

Edward Curry-Hyde: Ari, it's been a pleasure. Thank you.

Ari Sharp: That was Tim Orton, founder of Nous Group, and Edward Curry-Hyde, founder of Cubane. You can find an article by Tim and Edward, “Our universities have been gold medalists before – here's how they can do it again” on the Nous website. You can also contact them directly via email and LinkedIn. We'll provide links in the episode notes.

Before we go, some information on us at Nous Group: for more than 20 years Nous has offered a broad consulting capability that allows us to solve our clients’ most complex strategic challenges and partner with them through transformational change. We've contributed to significant agendas in the UK, Canada and Australia; including shaping the future of higher education, digitally transforming service delivery and developing models of regulation. You can find out more about Nous and Cubane, meet our people and read our insights at our website www.nousgroup.com.

That's all for this edition of NousCast Shorts. You can subscribe on your favorite podcast app so you don't miss an episode. If you like what you hear, please rate and review us to help other people find it.

Thanks for listening. We'll catch you next time.

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