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Who will have the fast mover advantage? opinion

Much of the commentary on university strategy within our public universities in Australia and globally is noteworthy more for how little is changing. We remain to see radically different strategies and business models. The feelings of observers, and many staff in the sector, remains one of waiting for something to happen.

There is much waiting in different business, government and public settings at the moment. But when others wait, some innovators and leaders thrive. There is a sense in which Australia is being left behind by the opening up in other parts of the world while we wait. Taking advantage of the key opportunity of momentum, and embracing the flow of change, is not to be underestimated. It points to the importance of timing in responding to a changing context and getting on with the new game in town.

The advantage of moving at pace rather than suffering the "sand in the gearbox” feeling is common in business settings as well as in physical movement. It is looming as something significant to universities as we move towards the end of our second year of upheaval and response to a pandemic. 

Universities have been more likely to celebrate longevity, continuity and tradition until now. The idea of thriving on change, and celebrating moving quickly, has not been how we have seen and promoted ourselves to others.

Starting in a pandemic, Professor Alwyn Louw took over the helm at what was then Australia’s newest university: Torrens University. Alwyn saw starting in a pandemic as an opportunity, created by a burning platform – taking advantage of a culture of change in an institution whose trajectory had momentum and growth as its underlying characteristics.

He described 2020 as a most dynamic induction period. It generated an immediate requirement to move quickly in a vehicle already in motion. It would have been very different working from a standing start and overcoming pre-existing inertia.

In early 2020, Torrens University programs were already 40 per cent online and all had been designed as such. Staff needed confidence and to be engaged in the process of moving to fully online operations, as they did in all universities. And Torrens’ students needed an understanding of the change they were to be faced with that needed skillful communication and engagement. But there was an existing orientation and momentum towards this in both staff and student groups. It was an institution that was already different and on the move.

The key was to move faster than those that were doing so from a standing start. Torrens was Australia’s first new university for some time in 2014 when it commenced as a US-owned private institution with around 150 students. This was a year after Sandra Harding’s UA speech we reflected on in our previous HEDx podcast episode. Torrens now has close to 20,000 domestic and international students, and campuses around Australia and New Zealand and a strong online and offshore offering, resulting from a business model based on growth.

Its strategy has a focus on quality and student success but, as a private university, it operates on a model of continuous innovation. It has created a dynamic model for success based on experience of public universities and a strong sense of what university mission and purpose is. But Torrens University is also resolute in ensuring that the freedom university provides, including economic and social mobility, is not restricted to a privileged few.

Its business performance over seven years of operation can be summarised as one of rapid and sustained growth which for some years has made it Australia’s fastest growing university based on annual average growth in new enrolments. The re-registration of the university by TEQSA in 2019 reflected recognition that this robust growth was sustainable, without compromising quality of academic delivery to students.

A simple way of explaining the different way it operates compared to public universities would be that it is an Australian accredited and governed university, which is part of a US-owned, NASDAQ listed education company.  Torrens is also a Certified B Corporation committed to high international standards of verified social and environmental performance, public transparency and legal accountability. The business is run differently in its development of strategy, global perspective, partnerships with industry, and how it responds to challenges and opportunities, including offshore education.

Its Australian governing board includes a number of high-profile figures in Australian higher education, including Professor Emeritus Gerard Sutton and Dennis Gibson, former SA education minister Greg Crafter, and chancellor Michael Mann AM. The calibre of the governing board demonstrates that Torrens is not just an agile innovator, but is built on traditional academic rigour and governance nous. Torrens University has also avoided a concentrated reliance on any single overseas market as a source of international students.

Its strategic advantage, amplified through the pandemic, are its ability to move faster than others. It has been able to plan from a blank slate for balance in markets of local, national, domestic, international, onshore, offshore and digital students. A focus on rapid growth was key to its planning in contrast to most of its public competitors. It has differentiated through its entrepreneurial and innovative perspective with a focus on growth.

Its self-funding and relentless focus on business viability drives decision making. This occurs within a governance model that has short lines of decisions making directly linked to executive action. There is a simple explanation to the stealth and agility adopted. Longer turnaround times amounts to wasted opportunities. Worse still, they easily play to the strengths of others.  

Management models are different too, with both a CEO/President and VC. The ability to combine an academic focus on quality and business focus on growth and opportunity is unique in its management. It leads to a differentiated business operation.

UniSA is being lauded as a first mover into Minister Tudge’s world of 10 million international students in 10 years' time through a recently announced venture into online global short courses in collaboration with Accenture. But will they be the fast mover in this space? Or will the advantage of global reach, different governance and executive models, and pre-existing operations designed from blank sheets of paper, lead to a greater advantage than being the first into new markets? 

We are at a particularly unique juncture for the sector right now in terms of strategy, transformation and new models and opportunities. As the world learns to live in a new normal, our turn in Australian universities is about to come. The waiting is about to end and those that find new opportunity have lots of momentum to generate as we reflected on together in the most recent HEDx podcast that you can access here.

Emeritus Professor Martin Betts, Co-founder of HEDx

Professor Alwyn Louw, Vice Chancellor of Torrens University

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