Glyn Davis sits at the intersection of education and public policy

'The CEO matters, yes, but the whole story is the top 20 or 40 people in the institution,' says Davis. | Photo: Damien Pleming

The way universities are funded, and how they engage with the community, is a fast-evolving debate.

This article is from the November 2014 issue of INTHEBLACK.

Glyn Davis and his team have taken The University of Melbourne into the top 50 educational institutions in the world. But the way universities are funded, and how they engage with the community, is a fast evolving debate.

As the Australian Government searches for solutions for how to fund universities, and controversy around this continues, the head of The University of Melbourne is a strong voice in the debate.

Professor Glyn Davis AC is vice-chancellor of the 160-year-old institution, Australia’s leading university and ranked 33rd in the world in the latest Times Higher Education global rankings.

He was vice-chancellor of the much newer, and smaller, Griffith University before that and has also written the book – literally – on public policy in Australia.

He spoke to former CPA Australia chief executive Alex Malley.

Alex Malley: Glyn, your life has been immersed in two profound fields – education and public policy. What inspired those choices?

Professor Glyn Davis: [I chose] education because teaching and research was always so fascinating.

I went into government to get some experience because I figured if I was going to teach about government I’d better have worked there.

While a PhD student I worked in the [Malcolm] Fraser government on a review of the public service, the Reid Review [1983].

And when I lived in Queensland I had a chance to do what I thought would be six weeks of work in the new state government and it turned into 10 years, but life does that.

All along though I thought I was going to be a journalist, that’s what I set out to be. All my family are journalists, I’m the black sheep.

Malley: You acquired that government experience in quite senior roles for a young person. What are your recollections on what you learned about human movement and how to influence particular outcomes?

Davis: The key thing I learned early on was what I didn’t know. You realise there are whole complex questions that you’ve just not thought about.

The first time you do any senior job, you’re not carrying that intellectual capital with you yet – it takes time to build it up.

There were times when I thought, “Am I ever going to get on top of this?” My strongest recollections are the professionalism of the people I worked with, the strength of the disciplinary identities.

"We have more than 600,000 students doing our massive online open courses. A typical course will have 50,000 students enrolled." – Glyn Davis

So the HR people saw themselves through the HR prism, the CPAs likewise. People were working from their expertise. [I also recollect] how hard-working the public sector was.

There’s a counter narrative in the community that public servants don’t always work as hard as they might. That was not my experience. I watched a group of people work day and night.

They cared about what they were doing and they were committed to it. They worked much longer than the hours that we engaged them or paid them for. I have to say that’s exactly the same as a university.

Malley: Do you see the universities as having the same public impact on issues of policy and public commentary as they did in the past?

Davis: I’m not sure there’s been much change. Where governments feel very confident about their own expertise they don’t look outside.

When they run into a problem they haven’t encountered or they’re required to go into new areas and they’ve got to cast around for ideas, that’s when they look to universities.

We recently had a senior federal minister on campus with a series of academics to talk about the area he’s working in.

It was a very enjoyable conversation and at the end of it he said, in passing, “This is the first time I’ve been on a campus to talk to experts in my whole time in federal politics.”

I read that as an indictment of us as universities, not of him as a federal minister – he’s the busy one and we didn’t reach out. So that gave me a lot of pause and I’ve been mulling that comment since.

Malley: Do you think part of that is because of the breadth of realities universities face today, including commercial aspects, that are far more compelling than they were in the past? Do they struggle to focus on the areas that are core to their being?

Davis: No, I actually think it’s a highly variable pattern.

So if you’re the medical faculty, and nearly half of the University of Melbourne is medical, you’re intimately engaged in the public system: staff work in the hospitals, they provide the research for the hospitals, there’s a really regular interchange of leadership and our budgets are intertwined.

If you’re the arts faculty there isn’t a profession out there that’s looking for your input and you’re not as integrated. Engineering is halfway between those two.

"Where we once had 10 students, we now have more than 20."

'Where we once had 10 students, we now have more than 20.'

Bits of engineering are incredibly focused on business and do a great job interacting there. The professional schools are well connected, the generalist schools struggle.

Malley: This brings me to the “triple helix” concept you talk about with research, learning and teaching, and engagement, and each strand supporting the other. I’ve always had the sense that universities have not quite had the capacity to acknowledge those as equals in the right circumstances.

Davis: Very hard to argue with you on that. We have placed a great emphasis on engagement in recent years.

Last week I hosted the annual Vice-Chancellor’s Engagement Awards in which we acknowledged a huge range of students and staff who’ve done very interesting things with communities or companies.

That was really encouraging but there’s still a long way to go. Teaching is obvious, research is obvious.

But engagement, some people instantly embrace it and for others it never quite gets to the centre.

Malley: How well is social media and online education being embraced and executed?

Davis: You can do most student services online in a way you once had to queue up at a centre and hold a number. We’ll follow up in different media; you can use Facebook to talk to the student support staff.

On the media side we’ve got a presence in social media and we use it to talk to our staff – a lot of staff will tweet individually plus we have corporate accounts.

But the most interesting thing for me is the use we’re making of it in teaching. We have more than 600,000 students doing our massive online open courses.

A typical course will have 50,000 students enrolled. You can see each semester they get more sophisticated, the technology gets better, our understanding of it improves. In terms of potential, it’s really exciting.

Professor Peter McPhee is just finishing up the course he’s been running on the French Revolution. He’s been teaching on campus for nearly 30 years, he’s a fabulous teacher and he loves teaching.

He’s described it as the most exhilarating experience of his teaching career. He’s just buzzing. That for me is the really exciting part of the online agenda, the social media agenda, that’s new and genuinely transformative.

Malley: The Business Council of Australia and other major business groups, not us, hold a firm view that there are too many graduates in the market. You have a perspective on the value of education linked to productivity and we share that view. Have you been surprised by the public debate?

Davis: It’s always been the case that professional groups would be happier if there were fewer graduates, though as you point out that is not the CPA Australia view.

If there were too many graduates you’d expect both unemployment to rise and salaries to fall. There are some industries where you can clearly see that.

Engineering is the most obvious – it’s directly tied to the slowing down of the mining boom.

But there hasn’t been an overall decline in graduate employment or salary of any significance yet. It doesn’t mean it isn’t about to happen.

Malley: Turning to the Australasian Century, over the past 20 years Australia has developed skills and a knowledge base that emerging economies needed to learn from. Many of those economies have learned and are now efficient, proud economies. To the issue of the knowledge economy in Australia, of coming to grips with what that is and what it could be, and executing a strategy, where do you see us on that paradigm?

Davis: I agree with your assessment about our region and I think about South Korea and its capacity to rebuild itself, not just from the Korean War but it was in a difficult place for decades after.

It has consciously built new industry sectors, it has used state policy to do that, it’s investing a significant percentage of GDP on research and development and it’s made South Korea a major player in all sorts of trade in parts of the world.

You can tell the same story for Singapore. They have in both cases had governments that were much more inclined to invest in research and development [R&D] than the Australian Government; we’re a very modest investor in R&D.

"I don’t want to predict that some universities will close, but I wouldn’t be surprised if there were some mergers and amalgamations." – Glyn Davis

They’ve both also had state industry policies that we would find hard work because they’re interventionist and, in some cases, anti-competitive, at least early on while you develop a new industry before you send it out in the market.

They’ve actually thought about those questions and I think we have things to learn.

We can look to Finland and the way they’ve recast their economy into more advanced manufacturing out of timber, which was their main export a generation ago.

And some of the work that’s going on in the UK as well – Nesta [an innovation charity] has done a huge amount of work thinking about how do you create an entrepreneurial culture, how do you encourage investment into the new sectors you want to develop?

Davis on leadership

Most of us go into leadership roles knowing not just that they’re demanding, but that you can’t be good at everything.

The real skill isn’t your skill, it’s how do you put the team around you to achieve what the organisation needs?

You have to focus most closely on your own weaknesses, not your strengths, and then how are you going to build around you the team so that you can deliver?

If I take any lesson out of it it’s that there are some core expectations of leadership: the vision for the institution, the sense of direction, but after that to achieve anything there is a huge focus on the whole leadership team and the emphasis on the CEO always misses the point.

The CEO matters, yes, but the whole story is the top 20 or 40 people in the institution who, together, set direction, deliver the strategy, implement.

If I have a lesson [I’ve learned] it’s a bit of humility about where choices are actually made and the limits of what any one person can do.

Davis on Australia's university funding debate

The per student funding, the amount the Australian Government gives us for each student we have, peaked in 1976 and it’s fallen steadily since.

That’s why where we once had tutorials of 10 students we now have more than 20 students.

In 2012, and 2013, and 2014 further budget cuts were announced so we’ve now got one of the lowest per student funding rates in the OECD (Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development) world.

Successive governments would counter that by saying they’ve never spent more on education, which is true because there’s never been more students than there are now.

The tension is between expanding the number of places so that everyone can get a place and what you actually invest in each place. Yes, we’ve expanded but at the cost of less resources per place.

The government is effectively signalling that it can no longer fund the system to continue to expand, and so its proposal is to deregulate so that institutions can charge more – effectively shifting more of the burden from public to private.

I’ve heard the federal education minister Christopher Pyne say that, on average, students are currently paying 40 per cent of the costs of their degree and the government’s paying 60 per cent and in future that will be closer to 50-50.

There’s a lot of generalisations caught up in that statement but you can see the policy direction.

So what do we know generally about deregulation? When markets that have been essentially public are deregulated in other industries you get a series of predictable events: you get a huge expansion of supply, lots of new players move in and start offering all sorts of programs; you get price competition which begins to bring down prices in some areas but not consistently; and you get a lot of investment.

The second phase is where reality begins to take hold because people realise there’s more supply than there is demand so price falls, some players begin to get into trouble.

In other industries, 10 years out there’s a considerable contraction of the number of players and that’s how price then stabilises because there’s less supply.

Typically, 10 years out, there are fewer players than you started with. I don’t want to predict that some universities will close, I wouldn’t know, but I wouldn’t be surprised if there were some mergers and amalgamations.

This article is from the November 2014 issue of INTHEBLACK.

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