Life at Flinders – two years on

I started receiving notifications from LinkedIn yesterday congratulating me on my two year anniversary at Flinders University, so I thought I would take a moment to write a short post reflecting on my time here, and on where to from here.

Two years is a slightly confronting time for me. On the positive, its been two years of making good progress with the Flinders Connect project, encountering many challenges, and hopefully making a positive difference to my team and to the students who come to us looking for help. On the down side, it also means only one year until my contract ends, and I look ahead into an uncertain future like so many others working in Higher Education in Australia given the rumblings that are already starting to emerge in the lead up to the Federal budget. In spite of the potential consequences to myself and the sector as a whole, these pressures make for a fascinating environment in which to operate.

One of the most interesting things to observe is the seemingly eternal tension between Academic and non-Academic (aka ‘Professional’) staff within the University. In my nearly ten years working with Universities as a vendor I had come to think that this division was largely fictitious, or at least historical, but on reflection I now realise that I never saw this because I was just a vendor – very definitely an ‘outsider’, and not privy to the frictions which I’ve no doubt now existed all along. Now that I’m in the thick of it, I see it on a regular basis, a power struggle between the historical and pure concept of The Academy, and the imposition of the very broad concept of Management, particularly when that management is done by someone who is not themselves an Academic. I’ve made a point of reading some of the texts out there covering the ‘war’ being waged on The Academy, such as those by Ginsberg, Washburn (acknowledging these two are looking at the US landscape, which is far more terrifying), Marginson and closer to home Brabazon, who describes University administrators as an…

under-performing, anti-intellectual group

hell bent on destroying Academia through the implementation of corporate bureaucracy, and they all say more or less the same thing – that power is shifting from The Academy to The Administration in Higher Education, and the Faculty are very, very pissed off about it.

And I can’t say I blame them. I suspect for many who chose Academia as a career back in the day for very noble and community-minded reasons are now loathing the incursion on their ‘Academic freedom’ by an emerging (but no longer new) model of operation which borrows so heavily from the Corporate sector, continually seeking efficiency, increased revenues and reduced risk, which in turn drives short-term outputs rather than long-term outcomes. Don’t even get me started on the flow-on issue of Academic casualisation, which is far better covered by far smarter people than I.

The problem I do have is that so much of this vitriol directed at Administrators should actually be directed at the external pressures that are fuelling this transition to Higher Education as an industry, whether it be globalisation, Government policy or the changes in the world outside of The Academy that have changed the expectations of one of our largest customer groups – students.

Students as customers – one phrase which is almost guaranteed to start a fight within any mixed company at a University event.

The problem is, and this probably cuts to the quick of the whole matter, that whether we like it or not, in the world we now live in, our students are customers. They are purchasing an opportunity to create a better life for themselves. They are informed. They are mobile. They are empowered to choose when and how they study in an increasingly global Higher Education landscape.

This is probably the most dangerous tightrope I need to tread from hereon in (or at the very least for the next twelve months). The concept of students as customers puts me even more at odds with some in The Academy, but it is the reality that I see every day at the start of Semester when I’m eye-to-eye with them on their first day on campus. I was fortunate enough to attend the Chief Customer Officer conference last week and hear from a wide range of C-Suite level presenters talk about customer experience as a critical differentiator in a commodity market, and as the delivery of higher education becomes more and more commoditised (again, like it or not), then so does the potential for ‘CX‘ to be a differentiator to at least retain, if not attract, students – as the Federal government has hinted for a while now, getting bums on seats isn’t enough, it is also necessary to keep them there.

So my plan for the final year of my contract is pretty much the same as it has been for the first two – design and deliver experiences that make student life as easy as possible with the resources I have on offer, as simple as that. Regardless of what I’m writing this time next year, if I stick to that philosophy then I can at least move on a happy man (but don’t get me wrong, I would love to stay, I just don’t want to count any chickens before they are hatched).

And on that somewhat melancholy note to end a somewhat melancholy post, I’d like to share two comments that I received today that make it all worthwhile. The first from a student:

Flinders Connect is one of the best ideas for university students, especially when you are starting your first year. They are extremely helpful and so friendly which makes life less daunting.

and the second from a colleague, who I will leave nameless – you know who you are 🙂

You make Flinders a brighter place to work.