Discussions on the history and historiography of Australia's New England

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

History revisited – two decades of change at UNE

Concluding my story of UNE’s Vice-Chancellors, in February Professor Bruce Thom (1994-1996) arrived to become VC of the newly reconstituted University of New England.

This “institution has been cruelly treated by State and Federal Governments”, he said. “The last four years were like a bad dream”. He promised a more democratic decision making process. The University must live within its means, diversify funding and increase research output.

The new VC was quickly swamped by legacy problems, including difficulties with the School of Law and the ill-fated Turkish venture. The University’s financial reserves had been largely exhausted by the previous troubles, By July 1996, it was in financial crisis. In November, staff carried a motion of no-confidence in the VC, followed by the Council. Professor Thom had no choice but to resign.

His place was taken by Mal (Malcolm) Nairn as interim VC. Building in part on decisions already made under Professor Thom, Nairn was able to stabilise the situation. His replacement Ingrid Moses (1997-2006) arrived in July 1997. She adopted Nairn’s strategic plan and was able to build from his work. By July 2001, the financial position had been largely restored.

In many ways, Malcolm Nairn, Ingrid Moses, Alan Pettigrew (2006-2010) and James Barber (2010-2014) faced common strategic problems: variable and often prescriptive government polices and funding; limited access to alternative funding sources; difficulties in attracting internal students, along with increased competition in the external marketplace.

The University’s strategic position was poor. From the early 1980s, increased competition especially from the metropolitan universities meant that fewer students were opting for UNE. The times of trouble not only damaged the University’s reputation, but also created greater competition in regional areas. The University of the North had become the University of the North West.

Faced with these problems, all Vice-Chancellors sort to build student numbers, to preserve the University’s research activities, to develop new courses and to find new ways of doing business. There were successes, but there were also recurring problems.

At his first Sydney alumni dinner after becoming Chancellor in 2004, John Cassidy told alumni “this university is a business and must be run as one. That is my job” Sydney alumni dinner

In 2008, this view of Chancellor as Executive Chancellor exploded in a brawl over the respective roles of Chancellor and VC that put the University back on the national front pages for all the wrong reasons, leading to Mr Cassidy’s departure. Five years later, the University was back there over another Chancellor. 

In August 2012, Vice Chancellor Barber presented his plans for UNE to a Sydney alumni dinner. Within minutes, the carefully constructed question and answer session dissolved as anxious and indeed angry alumni sought reassurance that the new focus on on-line mass delivery would not further damage their university as a university (photo).

Professor Barber outlined his plans for the main campus and explained that a strong on-line side would support a deeper on-campus experience. That may well be true, but it is also true that patience with the University among the broader university community is running thin.

Note to readers: This post appeared as a column in the Armidale Express Extra on 5 March 2014. I am repeating the columns here with a lag because the columns are not on line outside subscription. You can see all the Belshaw World and History Revisited columns by clicking here for 2009, here for 2010, here for 2011, here for 2012, here for 2013, here for2014.

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