The Senior Staff Retreat

2/26/2018 by: Professor David Lloyd

Whenever I think about ‘retreats’ my mind instantly goes to Monty Python and The Holy Grail.

‘Run away, run away’.

In typing that I realise that what I view as my popular culture references are now firmly in danger of becoming popular ancient historical references – time can be so cruel.  The Senior Staff (a group that comes with capital S’s) ran awa.. sorry, retreated last week. To the corporate function rooms at the zoo. There is a joke in there somewhere, but it’s been done before, so I’ll refrain. The purpose – to think through the ramifications of the budgetary ‘adjustment’ foisted on the university sector (and by extension, specifically on us) on the 18th December 2017, for our new strategic plan. Our retreat. Running away in my mind, but actually, in less popular cultural management terms, something more akin to digging in and standing our ground. And like any action flick – before the definitive battle, before the valiant stand to be taken by our rag tag group of heroes, thrown together to stand up against the forces of evil – there’s the necessary exposition and set up. So here’s ours.

(I can’t help it, I like movies – indulge me).

If you were among the thousand or so attendees at the Enterprise 25 town hall sessions late last year you might remember that I had in my presentation what was, in hindsight, something of an apocryphal slide. I commented on the fact that we, as an organisation, had ‘no burning platform’. It was what made coming up with a sequel to Crossing the Horizon akin to us coming up with the ‘difficult second album’. I followed the burning platform reference with a screenshot of Han Solo confidently telling inquisitors from the control room of the Death Star that ‘we’re all fine, how are you?’ Accurate at the time. But perhaps I had unknowingly and ironically slipped into the exact frame of mind that I was railing against in the overall presentation – complacency.

The great cosmic karma was about to have a laugh at our expense.

Four days after we brought the strategic intent of Enterprise 25 through the University Council – the intent we discussed in our town hall sessions, the intent to place People, Programs and Precincts at the heart of our endeavours for the next 7 years – and which the University Council unanimously endorsed as our strategic direction to 2025 - the ground shifted. The demand driven system of university education in Australia breathed its last gasp as caps were introduced through the MYEFO mechanism. You’ll know that the Minister was intent on extracting $3.5bn in ‘savings’ (read: funding cuts) from the university sector via his ‘reform’ (read: funding cuts) package last year. That didn’t get through the legislative processes of the parliament. So, on 18th December, Treasury employed a methodology which does not require the passage of legislation, and which, when implemented, is intended to extract $2.2bn in funding cuts from university education in Australia.

As an aside, the MYEFO intervention freezes the total dollar value of CGS the government will pay the university at the 2017 funding level. The associated funding agreement specifies our student load composition for sub-bachelor and postgraduate places, with hard caps on those numbers. The wider undergraduate population can theoretically grow, but for every additional student enrolled over the 2017 number, the university will only receive the HECS component of funding. Additionally, the CGS dollar cap has been indexed, which means that the number of students it will support will decrease year on year. The freeze is in place for at least the next two years – at which point it will be ‘re-examined’.

I’m not so naïve as to rail against fiscal correction. I have no issue with us striving to balance our national budget. However, I am not a fan of pulling the rug out from underneath a stellar economic performer (the university sector as an export industry) and, more worryingly, a national investment strategy. Where does the future workforce and its skills come from if not from us? Sorry, I digress. This paragraph will probably be cut from the theatrical release but may feature in the Blu-ray bonus features.

Anyway. The ground shifted. A bit like that terrible line in the disaster movie 2012 – ‘the neutrinos have mutated’. Ask a physicist. I was once on a plane journey to the U.S. sitting beside one as he watched that film and he actually groaned out loud when he got to that scene. Our mutant neutrinos manifest as a cap on growth and a system which mitigates against participation. Both of which were core tenets of Enterprise25.

Ours is a university founded on principle of equity and access and realising the ambitions of our plan was predicated on a modest level of compound annual growth over the next seven years. I’m numerate enough to know that $2.2bn is a big number and, I think, astute enough to know that caps mitigate against growth. Taken together I could hypothesise that these measures might have significant implications with respect to our strategic intent. I was right.

Enter the finance unit. Who knew they would have to let the air out of my feel-good-second-strategic-plan-let’s-keep-on-being-the-best-at-kicking-goals balloon, but were reluctant to just step in and burst it outright. So they introduced the pin gently.

‘There’s a gap in our funding projections post MYEFO’, they said.

‘Oh yes?’

‘It’s not insignificant.’

‘Oh yes?’

‘It’s…’

It was, however one measures such things, big enough for me to call for a retreat.

The first rule of Fight Club is: you do not talk about Fight Club. The second rule of Fight Club is: you DO NOT talk about Fight Club! The same rules could possibly be applied to Senior Staff (capital S) retreats. But that would be pretty pointless. You get 70-odd people in the room, hold your hands apart as if you were describing the size of a fish you recently caught and tell them ‘the gap is this big’ and sooner or later by osmosis, everyone, everywhere, is talking about an absolutely enormous gap and how we can’t possibly deliver the next strategic plan. In reality, Fight Club rules don’t work in an institution that prides itself on openness, co-creation and a One Team ethic and culture.

So – the lowdown. The retreat was straightforward enough. We started off by talking about Crossing the Horizon, revisiting our intent and what we delivered against that intent. We talked about the reality and brass tacks of MYEFO. We talked about the irony of having a ‘no burning platform’ slide in the slide deck used to approved the strategic intent just as someone in Canberra was pouring petrol on the platform, laughing maniacally and frenetically clicking their gas lighter. Then we talked about Enterprise 25. We revisited the elements of People, Programs and Precincts – and we talked about those elements we would need to prioritise investment for, and those areas where we felt we might be able to integrate to business as usual going forward. We unanimously agreed that our strategic intent was not going to change – that we knew what we wanted to do. So then we discussed how best to achieve our goals given the shifting of the funding goalposts. And in so doing we formulated contingencies and plans to prioritise growth.

So that’s what we will do. Prioritise growth, close the gap, deliver the plan.

It was a very good retreat. No-one ran away.


Professor David Lloyd

Through The Big Picture, I hope that our whole community gains a greater and current appreciation of what is going on, how it fits together and how our activities connect and reinforce each other at a whole of enterprise level.


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