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Curtin ticks the boxes, UC a work in progress

Strong strategic direction and planning, strengthening research profile, students as happy campers, hitting the mark on student equity, well-developed internationalisation strategy, curriculum renewal, healthy offshore campus, great reputation in domestic and international markets. Curtin University of Technology was handed its AUQA report last week and it’s likely the chancellory resonated with the sound of clinking champagne glasses.
In what was an overwhelmingly positive audit, the university received 11 commendations, seven affirmations and only five recommendations.
Initiatives, such as its home-grown student evaluation survey eVALUate (CR, ??.??.??), its curriculum renewal program, tagged the triple-i (industry; indigenous, intercultural and international; interdisciplinary), were given the tick of approval, as was the university’s success in improving its research standing, having improved its position in the Research Training Scheme from 15 to 13, up from 21 to 20 on Research Infrastructure Block Grants and up from 13 to 112 on the Institutional Grants Scheme, all in the two years between 2006 and 2008. It saw a 31 per cent increase in external research funding in 2006
Along with the new, Curtin also received praise for areas such as internationalisation education, for which it has been a recognised leader for many years.
Curtin is the fifth largest university in Australia, with 41,000 students, of which 17,000 or 42 per cent – are international, both onshore and offshore.
AUQA noted its Sarawak campus, which was established in partnership with Navitas in 1999, is a maturing campus and is being “increasing autonomy appropriate to its size and scale” .
Curtin was commended for the conceptualisation, establishment and successful development of the Sarawak campus, as it was for developing research capacity at the campus.
However, Curtin’s newer Sydney campus (it also opened a campus in Singapore late last year), rattled a few bones among the audit committee, with the report noting that Sydney students had shown pass rate in diploma and bachelor subjects below the university’s average.
“It is not clear to the panel that there is sufficient understanding of the causes for the academic results and whether it is related to the entry scores, poor language proficiency or indadequiate academic skills,” the report said, noting that poor attendance and poor English proficiency may be contributing factors.
However, AUQA noted the campus “has the potential to be a long-term asset for the university and the university’s reputation in the region.”
Curtin vice-chancellor Professor Jeanette Hacket agreed, saying she expected the campus, which opened in 2005 in partnership with Navitas, would gain in maturity and strength along the lines of the Sarawak campus.
“We would envisage come the decade that Curtin Sydney will have a really strong focus on defined areas of education, good research activities and really give us connection to a lot of corporate headquarters in Sydney: Hacket said. “We think the work we are doing there will give us a very sound quality contribution to he in Australia.”
Hacket said the AUQA report recognised the significant strengths of the university.
“It demonstrates the systematic approach that we’ve had to defining what we want to do and then put in place systems. From our point of view it demonstrates identification of the objective and that that we’ve been very systematic in progressing the activities to ensure that happens.”
It was a different story at the University of Canberra, which was engulfed in a massive renewal process when the AUQA audit committee turned up for the first stage of the review. Vice-chancellor Professor Stephen Parker, had sensibly suggested the audit take place in two stages: the scheduled visits in 2008 and again in 2011 when the impact of his strategic vision should be having an impact.
However, last year’s panel found a work in progress. While Parker was lauded for his communication skills and vision – and as a result the sense of institutional optimism – AUQA could only find four things to commend the institution for.
While acting vice-chancellor Professor Carole Kayrooz put a positive spin on the report “we are pleased to have their independent assessment on our renewal and reconditioning agenda. We felt that it was commendations and affirmations were positive” – it was likely the university found it a bitter reminder of how far it still had to progress.
AUQA notes that since the appointment of Parker in March 2007, the university had been engaged in eight separate but inter-related reform processes.
“As a result of the reforms, many of the university’s systems and structures were either new or in the process of being reorganised at the time of the audit visit.”
Credit is paid to Parker’s charisma and communication skills, with the panel noting the extraordinary level of support for the reform process.
However, among the nine recommendations and seven affirmations, AUQA was concerned about the lack of follow-through from the university’s previous audit and the sad and sorry state of its corporate governance, including lack of financial and media skills among council members at a time of crisis. The council was even unaware of the perilous financial state of the university, the report notes. (The council now has six new members, including a partner in Ernest & Young).
And while AUQA commended Parker for his 10-year vision that recommits the university to serving its community, it was concerned that there was no back-up or strategic plan should the sources of income for the $100 million price tag should falter.
UC now has three years to figure it out.

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