Friday, March 15, 2013

Building on ANU Excellence

Greetings from the Australian National University in Canberra, where the Vice Chancellor, Ian Young is speaking on "Building on ANU Excellence". This essentially an update of his presentation "New Strategic Direction for ANU" in 2011. The VC issued an "Invitation to join a discussion forum", including adjunct staff such as myself.

The VC showed several tables indicating that ANU was performing well in comparison to other universities in Australia and world wide. This is in line with the ANU by 2020 Strategic Plan. ANU does well in terms of the excellence of its research and the satisfaction of student's with teaching. However, an area in which there is room for improvement is "Generic Skills". It happens that for my final assignment in the ANU Certificate in Higher Education earlier this year, I looked at how to provide "generic skills" (see: On-line Professional Education For Australian Research-Intensive Universities in the Asian Century and Report on Incorporating Professional Skills in the ANU Master of Computing).

One recent ANU innovation isn "vertical degrees" with students signing up for a bachelor followed by a masters, allowing six months to be shaved off the overall time, while improving the quality. Also "Flexible Double Degrees" will be added, allowing students to choose from a grater range of double degrees.

The VC explained that ANU's funds come from: 24% HECS, 20% International students, 6% postgraduate, 15% research block grants and 35% national institutes grant. Within the university about 60% of the revenue from students goes to the individual colleges, with the rest for the central provision of services across the university. In contrast almost all of the national institutes grants are directed to specific research areas. The research block grants are mostly allocated to the researcher's college. Curiously, unlike undergraduates, where the money is received each year the student studies, the ANU receives the bulk of the money for a postgraduate student only when the student completes (which I assume the government does to encourage completion).

The VC went on to talk about ANU joining the edX MOOC consortium. He said he did not anticipate this replacing formal degree programs. edX will provide a taste of ANU for potential students. This is also a marking exercise, positioning ANU alongside world leading universities. ANU will also look more at on-line education for international and mature students. He expected that young undergraduates will still attend campus, but will do some of their students on-line (called blended mode in the educational jargon). I find in teaching students on-line that the students with more experience cope better. The VC pointed out that one benefit of the interest in MOOCs is fostering a discussion of how to provide high quality education which incorporates e-learning.

A less glamorous but important aspect the VC then addressed was administrative processes. He pointed out a need for clarity but noted this will be difficult due to the ANU's devolved administration. One thing the VC said he would not do is restructure the university but instead make the existing units processes consistent.  An "ANU Services Improvement Program", run by a ANU Service Improvement Group has been set up. To me the obvious solution to this is to provide good quality corporate on-line systems and training for their use.

At question time one issue which came up was how to make more use of the skills of adjunct staff. This was pleasing to hear as one of these.

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