Monday, September 17, 2012

Dual sector and reputation: a VC’s perspective

In the recent flurry of activity surrounding dual sector – including the Queensland Government announcing its in-principle support for a merger between CQUniversity and CQ TAFE – I have received many words of positive encouragement from staff, students, local businesspeople and members of the community. This is great to see and reminds me of why we embarked on this project in the first place; to bring about a generational shift in education and employment opportunities for the people of Central Queensland.

Those that know me know that I am never one to shy away from a debate, so my ears pricked up when I began to hear a couple of comments about the potential damage a dual sector model might cause towards CQUniversity’s reputation! Over the past few days, I have received a small number of highly articulate, thoughtfully written emails from students, expressing their concerns about the merger and what it might mean for the reputation of the University (and the value of their qualifications).

I would like to genuinely thank these students for their correspondence. They obviously care passionately about this university (as do I) and their concerns are well thought-out and carry the best of intentions.

However, I wanted to write this blog to state, for the record, the University’s view on this issue and clear up any misconceptions about what a dual sector future will mean for CQUniversity’s reputation.

Firstly, let me reassure all students – past, present and future – that the CQUniversity degree you currently have mounted on the wall, or that you hope to attain in the coming months and years, will be worth just as much “post-dual sector” as it is today. In fact, it may be worth a whole lot more.

You see, dual sector universities are not a new concept (there are already five across Australia), and those currently in operation are among some of the nation’s finest universities. Take Swinburne University in Victoria for example. Internationally, Swinburne is named among the top 450 universities in the world by the prestigious Times Higher Education World University Rankings 2011 and in the top 3% of universities worldwide by the QS World University Rankings. Swinburne’s path to dual sector was not dissimilar to ours; through a merger with the Outer Eastern College of TAFE in 1998.

Perhaps even more appropriate to the CQUniversity context is RMIT (also in Victoria), which since 2004 has consistently placed in the Times’ top 100 universities in the world for producing work-ready graduates (something we have always taken great pride in ourselves). And Charles Darwin University in the Northern Territory, the most recent player on the dual sector scene, was ranked 309th in the world by the Times in 2011-12.

So why are these institutions performing so highly? In my view, it is because they have adapted to the changing needs of the society we live in. In this post-GFC, post-resource boom world, it is no longer good enough to walk into a job interview with a qualification from an “elite” university and simply expect to be hired. More and more, employers are looking for candidates who have taken part in work-integrated learning while studying (something dual sector universities excel at), candidates who have taken part in self-initiated work experience with “real world” industries (ditto), candidates who have “skilled up” with VET qualifications on the side and have a diverse skill set (see last response), and candidates who aren’t afraid to get their hands dirty.

In Central Queensland, you only have to look at all the fluoro shirts in the main street or the oversized trucks on the highway to recognise that the era of educational snobbery is quickly becoming irrelevant. In the new economy of the Asian century, the playing field is level and – to borrow a phrase – we’re all in this together. We don’t separate maths and science from phys ed and art in our high schools; so why are we perpetuating this “two-speed education economy” in our universities and TAFEs? I think there is strength in numbers and strength in a combined approach to post-school learning.

CQUniversity is a university of opportunity, and I make no apologies for that. At CQUniversity, we want to be defined by the students we include, not those we exclude. In a “lucky country” like Australia, where everyone has the right to a fair go, higher education should not be the bastion of the wealthy and the privileged. As a dual sector university, it won’t matter if you’re a STEPS student, a trainee hairdresser, an apprentice boilermaker, an undergraduate engineer or a postdoctoral research student – you will be a student of CQUniversity and you will be an equal contributor to its greatness.

By bringing TAFE into the University, we are applying our own rigorous quality standard to the certificate and diploma programs currently on offer, making them even more sought after by prospective students and employers alike. On the other side of the coin, we are making the world of vocational education – the sort of practical skills that one needs to get ahead in today’s competitive job market – more accessible to degree-level students, in the most streamlined manner possible. And we are ensuring that people who enter the University through any door (be it vocational, undergraduate or postgraduate) are given access to the whole spectrum of post-school learning, so that they can truly “be what they want to be”.

Post-merger, we will still be a university. We will continue to adhere to stringent standards of the Australian Qualifications Framework, which ensures the quality of our offerings is consistent with all other Australian universities, and our programs will continue to be accredited by prestigious professional bodies like Engineers Australia, CPA, the Nursing and Midwifery Board of Australia and the Queensland College of Teachers. That is not changing.

What will change is that CQUniversity will be more inclusive, more diverse, better resourced and more adaptable to the changing needs of industries and employers than ever before. And with $73.8 million in Federal funding for big-ticket infrastructure projects in the pipeline, we will have some of the best facilities of any university or TAFE not only in this state, but across Australia. I think that is certainly something to aspire to.

I hope that clears up some of your concerns, and gets you thinking about the exciting possibilities on the horizon. If you have any further comments or questions, please feel free to drop me a line at I look forward to sharing the dual sector journey with all of you.

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