Three insights from the dark side  – and a solution

I’ve just spent 8 nights across the Tasman trying to defy the siren song of my four email accounts and 20 something digital channels, glancing only at some headlines and the odd social post in a semi-ridiculous parody of going dark on communications 21st century style.

Ridiculous because it reminded me that I am squandering to much of my life chasing proposals and providing feedback leading nowhere at the expense of the occasionally sublime, occasionally anxious but genuinely delightful experience of being with people who certainly care whether I survive the day and occasionally have interest in what I have to say (thanks fam.).

But the onset of fleeting self-awareness is hardly breaking news, so I’ll focus energies on three takeaways that you’ll find more relevant.

  1. You’re not over-reacting, we are in the midst of a massive bunch of challenges. A week of gazing at mountains, marvelling at just how many shots you can take on a single golf hole, and playing cards ‘til the wee hours provided some space, but a quick glance at the headlines (visa fee changes, are unis spying, campus violence) and analysis (Andrew Norton’s insights on policy shortcomings were very good) were a reminder that yes, the sector really is in the middle of a mighty set of challenges that began with the release of the Accord Final Report in February. Note I say challenges. They are not calamities or even necessarily crises. But they absolutely are challenges and there are many of them.
  2. The old ways aren’t working. Hoping UA will sort it for you? Or that your government relations people are going to hook your institution up with a special deal? There are way too many challenges to hope those old lobbying fallbacks are going to sort out all the issues at hand. There is not enough conversation about solutions. There are plenty of submissions to government, plenty of misunderstandings live in Parliament and the community about how the sector works, but way too few opportunities to achieve new solutions and find constructive ways forward. I know too many people in the sector and we can’t just wait for 2025 to roll around with nosediving enrolment forecasts and a fistful of redundancy offers. The systemic changes that the Government proposes extend well beyond the variance of historic enrolment patterns.
  3. Time to choose: deckchairs or dialogue? We appear to be at a point where there is a choice – pull up the deckchairs, watch the battle over the future of the sector, and wail loudly when we are hurt, or seek to engage in dialogue in the hope that we can drive better outcomes. There appear to be two realms where we are currently failing on the dialogue front – the Government and the public.

    On the Government engagement front it is clear that the Government needs help with policy, and would have a far better prospect of achieving the reforms it hopes for if it was to open itself to a more collaborative policy development process. A pipe dream? Perhaps. As per point 2 the old approach to lobbying hasn’t exactly turned up trumps so far. Time for the sector to seek a summit with Parliamentarians? There are many views on the best approach for ones institution, fewer on how to achieve what’s best for the sector. We need to hear more. Luke Sheehy can’t be expected to do it all on his own.

    On the community engagement front there are many opportunities. Want a real campaign, with a chance of cut through? Let’s start with basic marketing strategy. Fast food chains sell convenience dressed up as fun – the food is the product, but the benefit drives the purchase. Clothing brands sell girlfriends and boyfriends and the chance to fit in and look so much better than you would starkers. Again, the clothes are the products, the benefits are what we each unlock when we put them on. So how does your campus benefit my plumber, or my aunt in her retirement village or the footy team I chatted to a fortnight ago, with precisely two out of 24 interested in going to uni and all set to vote for the first time in the next election? The question which further sharpens the mind is to consider why your plumber/ partner/ neighbour would care if your institution suddenly didn’t exist. Not why you think they should care, but why they would.

It’s time to admit that decades of sector messages have failed to tug the heartstrings of Australian voters – and if we want to be stronger, we quickly need to explore new approaches.

Why not leave it to UA? So this is Universities Australia turf right? Why get involved when we could all sit back and leave it to Luke Sheehy’s team? My view is that no, it’s not just up to them. There are far too many expectations have been carried by UA, with all the challenges of trying to gain support from diverse, competitive institutions. UA is undoubtedly the best institution to convey the message, but drawing together insights to re-think engagement needs more hands to the wheel.

Sector Positioning Workshop: Future Campus recognises the importance of contributing to improved messaging approaches and we will invite all universities and TAFEs in Australia to send delegates to two events – a forum on Sector positioning which will be online later this month, and a full, interactive workshop as part of the HE FEST conference in September, enabling live engagement between delegates. This will be an opportunity to contribute to messaging with insights from experts in policy, marketing, advertising and education leadership.

To prepare for the workshop we will hold an HE Positioning Forum from 10-11am on Friday 26 July 2024. Tickets

Visit the Conference Website for more information about HE Fest.



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