Navigating fast-flowing waters

In a white-water world, young universities have to grow up quickly, says Roy Crawford

June 20, 2013

Being a vice-chancellor is exciting. This is particularly true at a young university with ambitious plans to become an international leader in education and research. It is invigorating to watch a strategy unfold and succeed through the efforts of staff who have the vitality to respond quickly to a rapidly changing environment.

In the modern world, young universities need to grow up fast. They do not have the luxury of time to build their reputations. They compete continually with established institutions for students, staff and resources. To succeed, they must strive for excellence in everything they do, be international in their outlook and distinctive in their approach.

The University of Waikato is situated at the centre of the North Island of New Zealand. Our motto, in Maori, is “Ko te Tangata” – “For the people”. During our first 48 years we have had just four vice-chancellors, so there has been continuity in leadership and a steadfastness of purpose. As we approach our 50th anniversary, it is clear that success is closely related to one key factor: excellent staff. Our story contains lessons for other young universities, too.

As we move forward on our challenging journey we welcome the international benchmarking provided by the Times Higher Education 100 Under 50 league tables because it provides us with a timely and independent assessment of our progress.

During our first 50 years we have established ourselves as a major university in Australasia. We have a clear commitment to serve our people and our region, but in doing so we are not parochial. We believe that we can serve our region best by providing our stakeholders with access to excellence from the international stage.

Waikato’s strategy to achieve excellence and internationality is based on having the best people in every role, providing them with the best resources to do their jobs, and enabling them to operate within effective and efficient systems and structures.

A particular part of our distinctiveness relates to our engagement with Maori communities to ensure that they are involved in the educational process, to confirm that they have access to research-led teaching at the highest level and to give them the tools to succeed in an environment with high cultural awareness.

Other young universities should note that our commitment to Maori does not mean that we are inward-looking: on the contrary, our work involving indigenous people is both distinctive and has major international relevance.

We also achieve academic distinctiveness through strategic research collaborations with universities around the world on topics such as water quality (the Maori word “waikato” means “fast-flowing water”), data mining and cybersecurity.

And at Waikato Management School, the standard of teaching is demonstrated by its degrees being fully endorsed by the three primary international business school accreditation bodies, making it one of only a small number of institutions worldwide with “triple accreditation”.

Of course, in setting high expectations for ourselves we are also realistic regarding the constraints on young universities. Modern higher education institutions cannot afford to be heavily reliant on government funding so must widen their range of revenue streams. But part of the challenge is to recognise that new ventures can sometimes put the institution at risk.

For example, universities have always welcomed international students as a means of enriching the educational experience for everyone, as well as generating additional income. However, the key to success is to be strategic, and the sustainable approach recognises that an overdependence on international students is risky because of the volatility of the market.

Similar issues relate to overseas branch campuses. The rationale for such ventures needs to be very clear – particularly in the case of young universities. Are they undertaken to generate revenue, to promote the brand of the institution, or what? How can the educational quality of the home university be maintained, sustained and enhanced if limited resources are split between domestic and overseas commitments?

And of course, rather than travelling to campus for their education, many modern students are embracing the potentially disruptive trend towards new types of web-based pedagogy.

Massive open online courses and similar distance-learning technologies offer exciting learning opportunities for students but how will they work for young universities? Which business model should the institutions adopt? Will campus-based universities be able to articulate clearly the benefits of face-to-face education over gaining information through the internet?

What will the universities of the future look like? All now operate in a world where business models and the old order are changing. We must maintain the benefits of collegial management to preserve academic integrity and couple it with commercial acumen in a tightly constrained fiscal environment. And we must adapt to the paradigm shift of a new era in which social media enable instant communication around the world. Students can inform their peers in real time about their university experiences – something of a contrast with the perceptions created by centuries of tradition.

The challenges facing all universities are both daunting and exhilarating. It is the institutions that adapt to a rapidly changing world that will succeed. This is what makes the role of vice-chancellor so exciting.

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