From the Vice-Chancellor: Measure of a good university
Universities, especially research-intensive universities, measure everything.
Therefore, it should come as no surprise that benchmarking, ranking and evaluating performance is an integral part of modern university management practice. They are, quite simply, tools for serious self-improvement.
The University of Adelaide has recently led an international benchmarking program, under the auspices of the Association of Commonwealth Universities (ACU), on managing the student experience. The emphasis on `managing' the student experience is significant. It recognises the importance of the student journey from applicant to alumnus and not just the learning environment.
With growing importance on access to higher education, our focus will need to continue to adapt to meet student needs. At present do we do enough to explain our expectations, our culture, how to do things and how to behave? How do students know and understand what is expected of them? In past generations, when attendance at University was presumed for selected parts of the community, the questions above were probably redundant. Most students followed in the footsteps of their parents and so were `programmed' for success either in the home, or in the school. Widespread expectation of attending university from public schools was low and the in-school preparation minimal. Today, the University of Adelaide has a range of support programs for students, who lack the traditional higher learning grounding, to transition successfully to university life. A key component to this success lies in the ability to deliver a positive student experience derived from a clear evidence base, including student consultation and benchmarking.
Perhaps only a couple of decades ago university strategic plans would have been novel. Historically, the decentralised nature of many universities has sometimes worked against the centrally implemented targets or benchmarks. The direct and indirect efforts of governments have increasingly become key drivers for university self-evaluation. Direct influences, such as government defined performance goals and reporting, are invariably linked to a university's funding. The more indirect influence comes from policy-led change to the environment, for example, by making it more competitive.
In order to gain an edge in this context, smart universities turn to management tools such as key performance indicators and targets to make themselves more efficient, more competitive and more successful. Of course, we shouldn't need to depend on government compulsion to ensure that students and their experience are placed at the forefront of our agenda. Government intervention has merely hastened the development of management tools for universities to make their achievements more visible.
Having participated in the ACU benchmarking program, we have gained some valuable insights. A commitment to `student-centeredness' among ACU universities was universal. It was evident that universities are prepared to shape their practices and services to meet student needs rather than expect them to simply adapt to what we provide. Governmental influence (and its role as funding source) was also demonstrated in the overarching mission of each university and marked by a declaration of greater public accountability.
It is interesting to note that most university missions now reflect a degree of social investment beyond the traditional spirit of liberal education. I firmly believe a university should always be measured by its contribution to society. This underpins the University of Adelaide where the value of higher learning is intrinsically linked to the delivery of public good. Benchmarks provide a framework for strong universities, like ours, to conduct candid self-evaluation, embrace our strengths, and thrive.
As we go to print on the eve of the Federal election, it is astonishing and disheartening to see the lack of public discourse on higher education from the major parties. Genuine reform demands genuine commitment, no matter which side of the political fence you stand on.