Life has flourished on Earth because life-forms evolve to adapt to the planet's ever-changing environments. Universities have similarly flourished (in the Western world, for more than 900 years) because they evolved to meet the changing needs of society.
We are in a time where rapid evolution is being demanded of universities. Changes to government funding policy, natural disasters and not least, fallout from the coronavirus pandemic have badly shaken the business models of universities everywhere. The University of New England is no exception.
Failing to adapt to a changing environment has never worked well for species, people or businesses. UNE's headline work is education, but this is only possible if the institution is grounded in solid business principles, beholden to profit-and-loss columns. We cannot neglect to shore up these economic foundations.
Over the next year, UNE will be making some substantial changes to ensure the University's business model remains viable and strong.
The headline change is the University's push to free up about $20 million in payroll costs by shrinking its workforce. It is a move made reluctantly, but which is necessary to restore balance to the institution's books. Hopefully most of those redundancies will be voluntary, and redundancy payouts will help blunt the impact on the local economy while recipients find new opportunities.
Naturally, the prospect of losing people from the UNE workforce has been met with dismay. But to not take this step would have projected a false sense that all is well at UNE, even as the University's accounts told us that resilience was being eroded by unviable staff-related obligations.
Behind the headlines, UNE's business and administrative processes are also being overhauled to ensure that a trimmer workforce can continue to produce quality results for our students and communities. By freeing up resources and working more effectively, UNE will have greater flexibility in how it responds to future stresses and shocks.
It seems probable that the stresses will keep coming. Universities worldwide are responding to the COVID-19 crisis by taking their offerings online. UNE has excelled in distance education since it pioneered the format 65 years ago, but when thousands of universities start to globally compete for the attention of at-home students, UNE inevitably will need to find new ways to stand out from the crowd. What was successful in the past is no guide to success in the future.
We are thus in a time of imperative evolutionary change - but there is no change to UNE's foundation commitment: to be of the regions, for the regions.
There are multiple ways that UNE fulfils that promise - through education, through research, as an employer - but central to them all are the qualities of strength and resilience. The region needs UNE to be a strong enterprise, reliably present to lift levels of educational attainment, as an enabler of the local economy, and a hub of innovation.
The University is working to expand our commitment to the regions through further collaborations with regional Australia's industries and communities. In partnership with our communities, UNE strives to build a robust case for private and public investment in the regions, and to help build the critical mass required to support favourable government policy outcomes.
The current flux, and the stress and uncertainty that affects people in times of change, are regrettable. But they are a relatively short-term response to extreme circumstances so that UNE does not become obsolete, unable to adapt to a shifting environment. Australia's leading regional university needs to be here for another 65 years and beyond.