The Australian university in a pandemic-challenged new globalism

covid 19 message torrens university helmut

Our next challenge is to further engage in the scholarship of the what by interrogating the lessons we are learning – the answers are not found in a thought piece, nor a published article nor even a book.

“Learning is an ornament in prosperity, a refuge in adversity, and a provision in old age.” – Aristotle.

3.00 am
Refuge? Yes…but really?
It hasn’t been easy – we know what we should say, we know what we do say with our reassuring professional faces on but is it what we think when we wake in the early hours and many of the darkest manifestations of our fears crowd into our thinking? When the reassurances and satisfactions of our daily narratives retreat in the face of doubt that it’s the right refuge in an adversity to which most of us have experienced few parallels in our lifetimes? Pandemic.

6.00 am
Well OK, thinking more clearly now. We can do this. We have been doing this. We need to understand the existential challenges that COVID has taken upon itself to throw up in the face of our collective wellbeing but also not lose sight of the need to develop nuanced professional responses to issues that have been there all the while but are now accelerated.

The mind races, first to the specific: I/me. What do I do about my personal piece of the professional puzzle? In my case that covers being a designer with a life-long aspiration to build new things, different things, create original outcomes. Not be the same.

Thereafter, having been for many years a teacher/lecturer, developing the capacity to facilitate student learning in ideas generation, skills development and in them being better than what and who came before – including me, the humbling reality with which an educator needs to deal.

And in my present manifestation, as an academic leader/manager contributing to the facilitation of both of the above in concert with all of the stakeholders, including students and staff who are working to make sense of a beckoning new world.

So that, secondly, that takes me to the general: you/we/us- the family, including the professional family, the business, the University. How do we continue to manifest as functioning social beings? What are our organisational strengths, what key attributes developed in our organisational journey do we bring to both current challenge and what further do we need to develop to recognise and deal with next-stage circumstances?

And thirdly, to the larger politico-social context: Australian Higher Education, Australia per se, the region. Am I overthinking this? Or is this that game-changing opportunity that comes along once in an era?

What is it that is being said, that is seriously being considered, in the first instance for our organisation and in the second instance for Australian Higher Education in the changing reality with which we are presented? What are the ongoing and new challenges of regionalism and globalism for our profession? Can we drag opportunity out of the teeth of COVID?

Torrens/Think – the big, and bigger picture

“You never want a serious crisis to go to waste,”… “And what I mean by that is, it’s an opportunity to do things you think you could not do before.” – Rahm

Emanuel, chief of staff to former US president Barack Obama.

Across our organisation, including but not only in the leadership, the conversation currently centres on the next-phase, COVID-accelerated, strategies for further operationalising a key Think/Torrens promise: Everyone Has a Choice. That is a point worth repeating – the longer-term imperative to provide choice, with proper regard to the future world of work, through an enriched platform of learning and development modalities has not been created by COVID although some of the most immediate coping strategies have certainly been accelerated by the pandemic.

So, while we continue to develop the many subset strategies including, for example, building micro credentials etc. etc. – we are rehearsing a macro vision context to test our capacity (and the determination – not always a given) to offer:

  • a comprehensive, dual (multi/hybrid?) delivery mode accessible through a single-entry point,
  • targeted dynamic student-centred experiences adaptable to discipline needs with maximum flexibility and choice,
  • a continuum of modalities: formal, non-formal, micro credentials – mapped to a macro-curriculum,
  • reality checking against real-time performance data in a Student Lifecycle framework contextualised within our Learning & Teaching plan,
  • courses, scholarship and research predicated on the future world of work and international and regional economic realities and trends resulting in employment (jobs and skills).

What will that look like?
Who will it touch?
Will it appeal to our domestic market? Will they see the value, would they vote with their feet?
Will it appeal to the aspirations and life-values of international students and the cultures from which they come?

So first we consolidate that foundation rooted in what we know and what we are good at and that maintains a direct conduit to exceptional knowledge centres within our network. And at the same time, we need to remain unfailingly self-critical and ward against falling for our own easy propaganda about our inherent fabulousness – at every level, right through to the national.

Then we engage with the continuing work on that consolidation, which is currently being undertaken by every unit, every individual at Torrens/Think within varying degrees of consciousness – happily, mostly at the knowing end. And yes, it’s unknowing that crashes into our brains at 3.00 am but also spikes rational responses and strategies at 6.00 am.

Looking outside the tent

For me, an exciting piece of this framework that is building around the revising of how we, specifically in Australia, mean to proceed, which links most directly to my own work in educational internationalisation, is that which is anchored in our socio-educational value as a supplier in our region. Internationalisation for a country of 25 million inter-cultural (and I personally won’t resile from the celebration of multi-cultural) citizens located in South East Asia, remains a no brainer. Along with perhaps sensible discussion on nations needing to shore up supply lines and even plan dedicated production and distribution capacity for times when pandemics (and wars) threaten access to key resources, we also witness the re-emergence of a fringe hyper-nationalism looking for a return to a defensive group identity. i.e.: Real Australians, whatever that means. And not least, whatever national boundaries for ideas, learning, scholarship and research could possibly mean.

To begin with our social economy – that is, an economy that serves its people, not the other way around, no reversion to (COVID-led) fortress Australia thinking is possible much less desirable. The core fact remains, as Dr. Stephen Kirchner, the Program Director of Trade and Investment for the University of Sydney’s United States Studies Centre states:

“Australia’s income and productivity growth are broadly correlated with trends in economic openness and globalisation”.

Looking back in

Australia has struggled, not least through the rebuilding of its national persona since WWII, with changes to the core nature of its social/racial/cultural self-image. Let’s leap into the now and rehearse a few home truths.

There is no future for Australia and New Zealand that doesn’t involve accommodation in some realistic, ongoing, mutually beneficial form with the Middle Kingdom. Yes, we speak broadly about ‘the region’, but how we work with China remains paramount. As stated by Associate Professor Hongzhi Gao, Te Herenga Waka-Victoria University Wellington and Monica Ren, Macquarie University in The Conversation, ABC May 6, China is Australia and New Zealand’s number one trading partner:

“Australia earned 32.6 per cent of its export income from China in 2019, mostly from natural resource products such as iron ores, coal and natural gas, as well as education (my emphasis) and tourism.”

On another occasion, Australian businessman Andrew (Twiggy) Forrest agreed, not only about the specific but also the relative importance of China on ABC Radio, also citing “…education and services…” (my emphasis) in the mix:

“That’s ($153 billion) a long way ahead of our next largest customer, Japan, at $62 billion and South Korea at $28 billion…other markets in Asia are much smaller again and would take precious time to develop.”

Yes I know, Twiggy is not free of self-interest and of course we trust that most of us inside the tent are well versed in the larger manifestations of education as a social good but that doesn’t argue against its economic value and its contributory implications for social welfare – these aspirations and promises are not mutually exclusive.

Education in the social economy

At the same time, new world realities challenge us to re-think some of the assumptions on which Australian educational service delivery to the region has previously been predicated. They have included a sometimes-unquestioning belief in the attraction of the English language in and of itself, so that we came to believe that a workable capacity to operate with academic English was always a goal in itself rather than a means.

Yes, that was/is often the case but was it so in all cases and even if it was, will it continue to be so? We have decades of experience in servicing that need in any case and there is reason to question our capacity to continue to do so as long as there is demand. What more and what else can we do – should we do?

Those assumptions have also included a belief in our social superiority and the desire of international students to bathe in the light of that superiority including obtaining work and life opportunities both here in Australia and bridging to other wealthy western countries.

Again, there is no point denying that has been, and continues to be, a driver for many and that as a nation we have neatly, and for the most part honourably, exploited those opportunities. However, as the centre of gravity changes in our region, can we afford to plan our future on the assumptions true in the past?

One step at a time

So, to close the circle in this discussion piece, how does the ‘macro-vision context’, the current framework for flexible delivery we are currently enhancing, overlap with our capacity for regional and international outreach?

A current Torrens initiative has been the design and delivery – including all upstream communications and parallel and downstream quality assurance manifestations required of an Australian university by the regulator and related authorities – of two online Masters courses, an MBA and an M.Ed. delivered in Mandarin. I see this as our first toe in the water. Further courses and further partnerships with Chinese organisations are being explored. Yes, there are many possible pitfalls – some cultural, some political and less challengingly in my experience, some operational. Not all courses and academic disciplines may manage to overcome all three of those challenges. We start with those that can.

What is the offer of the MBA, for example, developed by the Business and Hospitality Vertical for students?

It’s delivered and assessed entirely in Mandarin Chinese by bilingual Australian learning facilitators with the support of the University’s partner in China, Sunlands. This makes the qualification readily accessible to managers in China for whom English language proficiency might otherwise be a barrier to admission and learning as well as not being a key requirement for the continuation of their career building.

The initiative is designed for students who want to understand business in a global context with particular reference to the Asia Pacific region. It exposes students to international and cross-cultural business practices and processes centred on the growing experience of regional business drivers building within Torrens.

Given our social and regulatory charter as an Australian provider of higher education, how do outreach projects of this kind impact on Torrens scholarship and the development of knowledge and capacity that can be both applied throughout the region at the same time as it builds our core knowledge base?

The course utilises a Western pedagogical framework that develops critical thought and analysis. Therein lies both the power and attraction of developing our international capacity rooted in our experiential professional and educational culture but not limited by language constraints. This initiative goes far beyond ‘selling’ our products overseas. It goes to building and validating our capacity for proactively taking Australian education to where the action is and disaggregating it from the many issues surrounding the limitations of inviting to place.

Moving from the idea of come to us towards an enriched idea of what we can offer and bring to you, in order to realise a major part of the flexibility promise, we may now be well advised to accelerate work on the disaggregation of content and learning from the English language and the geographic and cultural implications of place. What excites me however is that it promises so much more, requiring some careful introspection on what our value proposition, separated from language and a static take on place is, and can and should be.

And it doesn’t stop there – we are already fielding requests for further developments that would utilise hybridity in language, socio-culture and place along with hybridity in learning models. Domestic and international undergraduate and postgraduate students studying online, face to face and in hybrid mode, across international and language boundaries. We are limited only by our imaginations and our capacity to realise opportunity and, as our organisational motto suggests be Here For Good in the most comprehensive sense.

So if the mountain cannot not come to Muhammad, then Muhammad must go to the mountain.

“Mahomet cald the Hill to come to him. And when the Hill stood still, he was neuer a whit abashed, but said; If the Hill will not come to Mahomet, Mahomet wil go to the hil.” – Retold by Francis Bacon, in Essays, 1625.

3.00 am (again)
That personal moment where the I/me is confronted in un-armoured, undefended, isolation.
OK, don’t panic. We’ve got this.

6.00 am (again)
So, time for clear thinking.

This week I heard an anecdote about a comment made at a meeting somewhere: “I don’t care about the what, I care about the how”. One assumes the speaker meant that s/he was looking for tangible, measurable steps to understand and evaluate. I get that. But at its most base level that question gives us a lead in how not to think and importantly what not to do.

The what and why must remain paramount.

What is the value proposition inherent in Australian higher education? I don’t mean only in respect of our Torrens University promises which are comprehensive and clear. Our organisational goals and the proposition for student success within the gamut of our operational and situational frameworks are clear enough.

However, the bigger question remains – what does Australian education have to offer the region? The World? As with so much of our culture, how much is borrowed in any case, and does that matter? Our deployment of the Mandarin programs is helping us bridge to but cannot entirely answer those questions and more questions are thrown up daily. With the Mandarin language delivery project, we have jumped ahead because just do it is in our DNA. We are pragmatists and we believe in learning by doing. For me it’s the designer imperative again, for the immediate and the greater-us it might be part of the organisational, even the greater-Australian, no-nonsense character we like to celebrate.


Our next challenge is to further engage in the scholarship of the what by interrogating the lessons we are learning – the answers are not found in a thought piece, nor a published article nor even a book. Working on that challenge and the continuous pursuit of greater purpose is surely the mark of a University. And in saying that I recall the related word: universal. “Existing everywhere or involving everyone.” – Cambridge Business English Dictionary

Does one dare paraphrase Aristotle?

If so, then perhaps learning can be both a refuge in adversity and a provision for prosperity?

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