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Curtin VC Harlene Hayne. Photo: Supplied

Journey of discovery: challenges of the pandemic reignite VC’s desire to lead

Harlene Hayne has a unique perspective on the effects of the pandemic on higher education.

After guiding The University of Otago through most of the challenges of the past two years, she crossed the ditch and took up the reins at Curtin University in April last year.

Rather than finishing up in New Zealand and heading into retirement as planned, Hayne says the trials of the pandemic actually energised her and “reignited her interest in leadership”.

In this interview with Campus Review Hayne talks about that reinvigoration and the exciting times ahead for Curtin, which she describes as Australia’s most global university.

CR: You arrived at Curtin in April this year. What’s the experience been like for you and for Curtin, and how well has it navigated the many challenges of the pandemic?

HH: My plan really was not to have another job like this. I was coming to the end of my role at the University of Otago, and I was quite happy to continue to shepherd the university through to the end of the pandemic. My long-term goal was really to go and sit on a beach somewhere and retire.

But to be honest, the COVID pandemic really reignited my interest in leadership. I mean, being a vice-chancellor is not an easy job, but after you’ve done it for a decade, it does become more predictable.

But of course, COVID-19 really threw all of that out the window. So, I really found that the rapid shift to online for both running a university and teaching, it just really reignited my interest in leadership. The opportunity at Curtin just came along at the right time.

I did learn through shepherding Otago through COVID that I probably did have one more big job in me, and when I started learning more about Curtin, I found that this is a very values-driven university. In fact, it’s the most values-driven organisation that I have ever studied in or worked for.

And I found that the Curtin values and the way of being was really consistent with my own views, and it was such a completely different university from my former university. It’s much bigger. It’s very industry embedded and industry engaged. It has campuses in five countries. So, this just seemed like a great opportunity for one last leadership challenge.

I’d never set foot on the campus before I started my job on April 19. It’s been a seven-month journey of discovery, both for the university and for me, and I’ve certainly loved everything that I have discovered. I often describe it to people as: ‘It’s like somebody handed me this huge present, and every day I open another layer of the wrapping and I find something new and exciting inside.’

In contrast to what some people might think about the challenges of leading universities through something like a pandemic – it does provide really good opportunities for leadership that we don’t often get. In many ways, I feel very privileged that I’ve had the opportunity to lead two universities in this unprecedented time, and certainly, Curtin is in a fantastic position for me.

Are the New Zealand and Australian higher education sectors operating in similar environments, or are there some notable differences in your experience?

There are some very interesting similarities and differences between New Zealand and Australia in terms of the higher education system, and I’m only now coming to grips, for example, with the funding system in Australia which is very challenging. I used to think that the New Zealand system was confronting, but in fact, the Australian system provides some very interesting challenges, and I guess the biggest challenge is the cap funding environment that we’re currently working on.

The bulk of our income at Curtin, as is the case with most universities in Australia, does come in the form of student-related funding, either the money that the Commonwealth pays us to teach students or the tuition that the students are paying through their HECS fees, and both of those are capped under the current funding environment. I’m starting to understand why Australian universities have come to rely so heavily on international students as an additional source of revenue, because that’s really one of the handful of mechanisms or levers that we have under our control.

In New Zealand, government funding for research includes the overhead costs. So, that includes the funding for the salaries of the academics, or a portion of the funding, for the academics who are conducting research. The money also goes to support all of the expensive infrastructure that is required to do world-class research, and that isn’t the case in Australia.

I’m still trying to get my head around how we at Curtin will be able to meet our goals for world-class research against a backdrop of a relatively constrained funding environment. It’s our problem to solve, but it’s nonetheless something that I think about often.

How well do you think the Australian higher education sector, and Curtin in particular, is positioned to negotiate the post-pandemic future?

I think it’s still too early to tell, but we’ve got a very clear path to recovery at Curtin. I can’t speak on behalf of the other Australian universities, but our path to recovery will capitalise on our existing strengths. One of the huge strengths is that it is very industry engaged and industry embedded. This is a young university. It’s agile. It’s not bogged down by an imagined past. It is a future-looking institution, and I think that’s what makes us such a great partner for business and industry because we are young and nimble. This isn’t a new thing for Curtin. This is part of the DNA here.

We’ll continue to build on the fact that our students are highly employable. We’ve got the highest employment rate of a public university in WA. We’ve got a higher employment rate than any other Go8 university. So, that’s something that we’re really proud of.

The new part of our strategy will be around maximising the student experience. I do think that is one thing where Australian universities have lagged behind their counterparts in other parts of the world, not only New Zealand, but in the US, the UK and Canada, where university life in those countries is really centred on students’ needs, and the university organises itself in such a way that it maximises not only the educational, but also the growth opportunities for the student body.

Tell us about the new innovation precinct, Exchange.

It’s like a small city sitting in the heart of our university campus. It includes residential accommodation for students, a boutique hotel and a large amount of industry space, including space in our new building of Design and Built Environment. There is a large amount of commercial space, and there’s also a large amount of retail space, including a number of food and beverage outlets as well.

We’re hoping it will be a really great destination place, not only for our staff and students, but also for members of the community who enjoy the campus primarily on the weekends while they’re using our amazing sporting fields. Curtin is really a seven-day-a week place. Five days a week, the university operates, and then the other two days, the community joins us to play every sport imaginable. It’s the only university that I’ve seen since I’ve been in this part of the world that reminds me of a US big 10.

The timing is interesting. We read and hear a lot about post-COVID blended learning and now some universities are selling off parts of their built assets. What are your thoughts on what the campus of the future might look like?

One of the things that COVID taught me both in New Zealand and Australia is that the last thing university students want, and particularly school leavers, is more online learning. Our students have made it very clear that they want to get back into the classroom. They clearly understand the value of learning with their peers, and they clearly understand the face to face opportunities that are provided by the excellent teaching staff that we have.

For us, the future will include blended learning because we also have a large cohort of individuals who are reskilling or upskilling adults and are juggling work.

We’ve got students obviously who are scattered around the Indian Ocean rim. For us, blended learning going forward will be a combination of very high, intensive face to face learning opportunities and then using the technology that we have available to augment and assist, but the technology will not be driving what we are doing. The human needs of our student population will be driving what we’re doing.

Students do like to have access to recorded lectures. They can go over what they’ve heard, fill in the blanks, things that they’ve missed. They can use it for revision. You can use it if you’re sick. You can use it if your children are sick and you can’t be there. But the message could not have been clearer from the moment I set foot on this campus that the students want face to face learning.

Do you think the pandemic has led to a shift in the perception of higher education in society?

Well, I’m hopeful. One of the things that we saw in the heart of the pandemic was the importance of research. Many of the respected and trusted sources of information that led New Zealand and Australia through the pandemic came from university expertise in public health, in vaccinations, in viruses. I think one of the upsides of the pandemic was that the community was bathed in knowledge over a long period of time that was brought to them by the individuals who were actually generating that new knowledge through research.

I’m really hopeful that the pandemic has strengthened the public’s confidence in the public university system and really underscored the value of some of the research that we do here, and that goes not only for Curtin, but for universities around Australia and other parts of the world.

I also think we’ve got a responsibility as universities to open our doors to the public, and one of the things we’re working really hard on is to make our campus very porous. Exchange is one way of bringing people on campus to say that this is a place for everyone: it’s not an elitist organisation.

We work really hard to recruit the best and the brightest, but we work equally hard to recruit first in family, kids from regional and remote areas, Aboriginal Torres Strait Islander students.

I was the first person in my family to go to university. I know what the value of university education is for the future.

Where do you see Curtin in, say, five years’ time?

I think one of Curtin’s big strengths, and it is a strength that I’m only beginning to understand, is its global footprint. I think Curtin is probably Australia’s most global university. I think we probably have the largest number of well-developed campuses outside of Australia. So, part of our strategic plan will be thinking about how we can create a truly global university.

We’ve got a massive footprint here in Australia, and then we have campuses in Dubai, Mauritius, Malaysia and Singapore. We need to do a better job of integrating those five campuses so whether students come to Curtin Malaysia, Singapore, Dubai or Bentley, they actually get a truly global education.

That will involve integrating the curriculum, pulling examples, for example, in a business course from not only Australian business, but regional business. For example, what is Islamic banking about and how can we use our Dubai campus in order to teach students about that? We really want to build our global offerings for students.

I think in five years’ time you will find that your average Curtin student will be a much better global citizen because they will have had the opportunity either to study in one of the five campuses that are outside of their home area, or they will have the opportunity to study alongside people from those countries, whether it’s virtually or sitting side by side in the classroom, and they will be exposed to content that is truly global.

I think that’s really what the world needs right now. We need to move away from any sense of parochialism and think about the world as a whole, and Curtin is really in a great position to do that. I think in five years’ time you will see that a Curtin graduate will not only be highly employable here in Australia, but potentially highly employable in many other parts of the world because of the experiences that they’ve had here.

Another thing you will see is that Curtin is actually a remarkably sustainable university. The new Design and Built Environment building, for example, is a six Green Star building. We’ve been able to reduce our carbon footprint substantially, but it’s just been a matter of business as usual as opposed to being out loud and proud about our commitment to the UN sustainable development goals.

Going forward, it will become really important for us to highlight that to them and to give them opportunities to participate in research and teaching activities and community service that is commensurate with the SDGs.

What is the short-term outlook for the return of international students to Curtin?

We have about 1,700 international students who are currently studying with us offshore who want to come to Australia, and they have been extremely patient and resilient over the last two years. So, we are really looking forward to welcoming those students back to campus.

And then we have probably about another 750 brand new students who are quite keen to join us at the beginning of the next semester. So, we’re all incredibly excited about that fact.

Curtin, financially, has relied less on international students than some other Australian universities. Part of our strategy is that actually we have more international students right now studying in one of our other four Indian Ocean rim university campuses than we do at Bentley. We are very much looking forward to having them back, and for us, as always, international students are a source of cultural enrichment for us. So, that’s what’s really been missing: that huge, vibrant cultural mix that makes up a great world-class university.

We’re looking forward to having them get back on campus for them to have a wonderful Australian experience, and for our Australian students to have a great opportunity to interact with their peers who come from all over the globe. Now that we have a really clear path forward, we’re all getting incredibly excited to roll out the red carpet for 2022.

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