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Governance Under Pressure: An Australian perspective

by Dr Michael Tomlinson | Nov 10, 2021 | Governance & Policy

We are really pleased to welcome our latest Senior Advisor to the Halpin fold. Dr Michael Tomlinson is a higher education governance and quality consultant, and he’s based in Australia. Joint CEO Susie Hills had a chat with him to find out more.

Susie Hills (SH): In the UK, Covid has had a big impact on governance. Boards have had to find new ways of working and operate in a more agile way. Executive teams have had to take decisions swiftly and often outside the ‘normal’ process. Is it the same in Australia? How has Covid impacted there?

Dr Michael Tomlinson (MT): The epidemic is having a huge impact on universities and private colleges in Australia. Board meetings take place often by teleconference. Institutions that have a board portal are at an advantage here, as the board papers can be presented in a coherent way, accessible from anywhere, with other areas for board members to access key contextual documentation and communicate with each other.

We are now entering a second round of restructures and job losses, as a consequence of an extremely hard-line approach to border control, made feasible by Australia’s status as an island nation with no land borders. And made necessary by the high reliance on international fee income at many universities, which will greatly reduce as the supply of onshore international students dries up through the pipeline.

SH: You have worked with institutions considering mergers. What advice would you give to Boards considering a merger? What support will they need? Are there any lessons from Australian mergers for UK institutions?

MT: There was a big round of mergers in Australia as a result of the ‘Dawkins Revolution’, started in 1988 by the then Minister of Education. He set a minimum size for all providers of 2,000 equivalent full-time students, and many specialist institutions especially in the performing arts were forced to go looking for university partners willing to take them over: https://nitro.edu.au/articles/2018/7/13/mergers-creative-arts-and-the-art-city-that-never-happened

This led to Australian universities being a lot larger than those in the UK on average and to a lack of diversity, and there are not many who think this was a great idea thirty years on. Personally, I think ‘small is beautiful’ when it comes to learning environments. While student satisfaction has continued to rise despite the creation of mega universities, the scale of these doesn’t suit some students who seek a more personalised experience, and these often transfer to private providers. If you merge with a small institution that serves its regional or specialist market well, will you be able to keep that focus?

So, the big question for any institution considering a merger is: What are your objectives? There should be a strategic reason for taking them on, which should go beyond just economies of scale. I’m sceptical these have been achieved, with the growth of the managerial class needed to run these large organisations, who are paid large salaries over here.

Some questions to consider include:

  • Are the missions of the two organizations compatible?
  • Will they bring different strengths to the table which will lead to a stronger combined organisation?
  • Are the corporate cultures compatible?
  • Are the information systems compatible?
  • Will the combined organisation still be manageable and distinctive?

SH: You have supported UK institutions with operations in Australasia. What would you advise Boards to focus on when their institutions are exploring these options?

MT: I don’t know of any UK institutions that are operating in Australia, but I have provided advice to two universities that were looking to set up operations here. The first ran out of steam when the COVID pandemic came along, not surprisingly.

The second one is still potentially live, but has hit a speedbump due to the legislative framework. Our Higher Education Standards have a special category for registration as an overseas university, operating degrees accredited back in the home country. However, another part of the framework requires all governing bodies to have two members resident in Australia. This provision makes it in practice impossible to have overseas universities registered, so will have to be amended.

SH: We are looking forward to involving you in projects with our UK clients.  What do you hope to bring to them from your experiences in Australasia?

MT: So many of the issues in both countries are common, including pressures from governments towards tighter regulation and more narrowly vocational outcomes.

We are a bit ahead of the UK in going down the risk-based regulation path, and some of the pitfalls of this are becoming apparent. In particular, it entails a move away from peer review towards review by bureaucrats, which needs to be resisted. The UK is particularly strong in peer review, and I hope that it will not go too far down the same path.

Over the course of my career I have crossed over the fence several times, from poacher to gamekeeper and then back to poacher again. This has given me a dual perspective on governance, internal and external quality assurance and the relationship between the two.

Dr Michael Tomlinson is a Senior Advisor for Halpin, the home of experts in higher education governance.