How one university is planning its way through the crisis

‘Classic risk management tools’ helped protect the University of Tasmania, says its former management consultant boss

May 19, 2020
Rufus Black
Source: Osborne Images

Consultancy contracts have been among the first expenses jettisoned as Australian universities face massive revenue write-downs. But the leader of one Antipodean institution credits his management consultancy background for helping to moderate the economic carnage.

Rufus Black, the vice-chancellor of the University of Tasmania (UTas), says the insights he gained at McKinsey & Company, where he worked for nine years, had helped to prepare him for the Covid-19 crisis. More than a decade ago, he contributed to an “all-hazards risk framework” that identified pandemics as “the number one risk” to Australia.

“Ever since, that has been on my radar as the thing most likely to cause the kind of national disruption we’re now experiencing,” he said, stressing the importance of “moving early and responding strongly” to signs that a brewing epidemic might be “the real thing”.

UTas assembled a crisis management response team and initiated planning for online course delivery in January, before Australia closed its borders to China on 1 February. Subsequent risk-scenario planning “made it very clear that we would be having to migrate the whole university online”.

The university was testing its ability to “deliver online domestically at scale” in February, weeks before mainland universities acknowledged the likelihood of enforced campus closures.

Professor Black said UTas now had about 24,400 domestic students, compared with last year’s 24,300, and 200 more international students than the 6,500 or so it had in 2019. “We’ve held our load,” he said. “We’ve lost virtually nobody.”

Some 1,000 of those international students are stranded in China, while many in Australia have been stricken by coronavirus-induced job losses. Professor Black said the university had distributed about 1,500 hardship packages, mostly to international students. “There’s certainly a lot of financial challenge out there.”

But things could have been worse for both students and the university. International enrolments could have been decimated on an island with no international airport that has since closed its state borders. Returning foreign students, once they are allowed back, might have to quarantine themselves for a month – a fortnight in Sydney or Melbourne, plus another fortnight when they reach Tasmania.

Professor Black said a “non-trivial” number of the offshore students could maintain their enrolments and return when that proved possible. “There is a very real prospect that there will be activity back on campus within the year, perhaps sooner. We’ve got advanced plans for that.”

He said UTas had done “a lot of modelling. We created a very detailed Tassie-specific model broken down by regions.”

The model features four scenarios: a “base case” where the virus runs riot; “chaos and struggle”, where control is patchy; “managed waves”, where the curve is suppressed but sporadic outbreaks occur; and “fortress Tasmania”, where the island radically controls the virus and its borders remain “very locked”.

The “real point” of these scenarios was not to second-guess the virus so much as the response it generates. “They helped us see what government policy was likely to be and how that would impact international and domestic student loads.

“We [also] wanted data on how the quarantine [was] affecting domestic student movement. Second semester numbers are giving us a picture that enables us to refine our estimates. They’ve proved a very helpful frame for understanding how a combination of epidemiology and policy works for planning purposes.”

Other agencies have found them helpful, too. “People kind of tuned in,” Professor Black said. “A couple of my v-c friends called and said: ‘What are you guys up to?’ I’m always happy to share.”

The National Tertiary Education Union credits its members for maintaining student numbers. Staff had “gone to the well and dug deep” to shift courses online, said Kelvin Michael, the union’s Tasmanian divisional secretary.

But management also deserves credit, he conceded. “They’ve reacted rapidly and effectively. The vice-chancellor and the other senior people have been pretty open about where they’re at.”

However, Dr Michael criticised management’s lack of openness about the university’s “curriculum structure transformation” unveiled on 10 March. “The union would prefer to be in receipt of a bit more information.”

The restructure includes abolishing more than three-quarters of UTas courses, many of which carry high administrative costs while attracting few students. It was prompted not only by the coronavirus but also by pre-existing challenges including Tasmania’s declining youth population, mounting competition for foreign students and an over-reliance on Chinese tuition fees.

The pandemic has caused other universities to press the pause button on their institutional strategies. But it has accelerated implementation of UTas’ mid-2019 blueprint and its “place-based” recipe of recrafting the university’s programmes to focus on domestic students and people drawn to the island’s unique offerings.

In April, Dan Tehan, the federal education minister, said universities should “pivot” their teaching to explicitly domestic needs. Professor Black said it was no accident that an institutional mission unveiled last year had found synchrony with Canberra’s new-found policy direction.

“Covid highlights why the strategy was right in the first place,” he said. “We’ve got to help our local community succeed.”

john.ross@timeshighereducation.com

POSTSCRIPT:

Print headline: V-c: advance modelling kept us ahead of the crisis

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