Kerrie Parker FCPA: Finance meets technology

Kerrie Parker FCPA, CFO of Deakin University.

Kerrie Parker FCPA, CFO of Deakin University, embraces the varied challenges her role brings her while transforming the university's finance function.

My role: beyond managing finance

My role contributes to the strategic leadership and management of the university, extending through to quality assurance and continuous improvement activities.

I am responsible for the execution of financial activities, business performance and partnering, budgeting, planning, corporate finance and financial shared services, along with strategic and commercial initiatives.

I have oversight of projects and process improvement, together with legal services, business intelligence and reporting. I also lead our budget sustainability program team, which is responding to the significant challenges of reduced revenue as a result of COVID-19.

One of my major achievements pre-COVID-19 was the complete transformation of Deakin University’s finance function and the introduction of the first Workday cloud financial application implementation in the higher education sector in Australia.

It was also the first major cloud implementation for the university and will provide Deakin with a competitive edge in the delivery of finance for many years to come.

Down the track, there will be a lot more opportunities combining quality data with high-powered analytics. Already a vast array of analytics helps us to understand our potential and current students, such as supporting the retention of students, maximising their satisfaction levels and ensuring their employability outcomes.

I enjoy roles where there is a great deal of variety and challenge. I therefore gravitate towards those where I manage more than just finance and can provide a significant strategic contribution.

Game changer: study and experience outside of core discipline

My first CFO role had a broader remit to manage both finance and IT. Not having an IT background, I felt I owed it to the team to understand something about their world, the expertise they needed to contribute and even their jargon, so I completed a graduate certificate in IT.

I am a believer in the benefit of further studies or new experiences, and I am the type to put my hand up for any opportunity around me. I highly recommend gaining experience outside the standard CFO stream to expand your skills and capabilities. This can involve working across other disciplines, often in projects, sales, marketing, procurement or change programs.

I’d also suggest seeking secondment or temporary assignment into other areas.

It is important to keep yourself current in your discipline, but also the markets you are working in. I think you understand the DNA of your organisation more when you understand how it operates as a whole – not just your part of the puzzle.

My challenges: COVID-19 and its impact

The education sector in Australia has never had a challenge like COVID-19. Australia hosts about 600,000 international students annually. In July 2019, about 134,000 new international students came to this country. Same time last year, there were 40. Visa applications between March and August 2020 have fallen by 80 per cent to 90 per cent.

International student fees – about A$9 billion per year – make up more than 26 per cent of Australian university funding. The projected losses in the sector are estimated at A$10 billion to A$18 billion between 2020 and 2024. This is an enormous shortfall to absorb, especially given the contribution universities provide to research and community.

Australia is facing the dual problem of fewer international students [arriving] and currently enrolled students leaving the country.

Canada – a competitor in the global market for international students – opened its borders to overseas students in October 2020, despite the country recording 76,206 new COVID-19 cases that month.

Our international student numbers, like the sector, will deteriorate further over the next two to three years. Changes in financial circumstances to this extent demand strong modelling and analysis, as we determine the possible financial impacts for Deakin.

The finance and planning teams have been instrumental in continually evaluating and forecasting our future financial positions.

The lockdown certainly provided significant savings this year due to reduced activities at all campuses, but it is not enough to make up for the loss of international revenues.

We have had to look at our operating model as our numbers drop – we have cut discretionary spending, reprioritised projects, stopped capital expenditure and reshaped our organisation, resulting in a reduction of staffing numbers.

Of course, liquidity becomes even more important, and we have placed greater focus on all cash flows, as well as gained approval from the government to borrow when the need arises.

For our students, we were fortunate that, when COVID-19 hit, we already had a strong online learning presence, and we were able to adapt quickly and make that even more effective.

We had a strong reputation for quality education and employment outcomes before COVID-19, and I think, over time, Australia will emerge from COVID as a destination of choice for international students.

There is a whole range of challenges, from the many unknowns about travel and international borders, to competing with countries that have better visa arrangements for international students.

However, I am hopeful that, by about 2023, we can return, maybe not to 2019 levels, but with a “new normal”, sustainable model that balances domestic and international students.

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Lessons learned and best advice

1. Love what you do
I spend a lot of time at work. You become close to your peers and the people you are working with, so it is important you love what you do – but still also appreciate it is only one part of your life.

2. Broaden your experience
That could mean volunteering, taking on further education or simply becoming involved in projects outside of your usual scope of practice.

3. Thrive on change
Change really is the only constant. Try to take the longer view where you can – champion change and adapt to it.

4. Don't be put off by career breaks
I think you have to appreciate that this is going to happen. I had my first after 20 years at one company, and several since. They are an opportunity to reassess, gain new experiences, and to learn and grow. Keep current, stay relevant, develop yourself and, of course, stay networked.

December/January 2022
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