It was winter in Australia. There had been high winds and rain for several weeks, but the weather had broken and the skies were a crisp blue, with frosty mornings – even if you are on the other side of the world, you have to scratch your head a bit and get used to the idea of cold frosty mornings in July. I was in Melbourne and Canberra for a week of frenetic work. It was a frantic schedule which involved my sleeping in seven different places over nine nights. I travelled to Australia a fortnight ago, mostly to work with our strategic partner, La Trobe University, but also to visit RMIT, the huge, 80,000 student further- and higher-education institution in Melbourne and to work in Canberra with the Australian Department for Education, Universities Australia and the Innovative Research Universities Network.
Our relationship with La Trobe University has strengthened and deepened over the past four years. We are separated by nine time zones, but we are genuinely like-minded institutions and we’ve built trust and camaraderie. Paradoxically, the pandemic, which should perhaps have driven us apart, cemented relationships. Everyone became much more confident about using digital meetings to stay in touch and we had common learning from an unprecedented global experience. Digital meetings have meant that we can progress a good deal of our work as global partners together without the need to travel long distances, but there are some occasions when you need to supplement screen meetings with face-to-face contact.
So, over the course of the week, we made huge progress in important areas. We have consolidated our agreement with Siam University in Thailand and a private sector partner, Nurture Education, to offer transnational education from Bangkok together. That’s a major development for both Hallam and La Trobe. We’ve set in place next delivery steps on our Global Security and Society Institute – a development with vast potential for both universities. We’ve established a basis for collaboration on micro-credentialled courses. I also took the opportunity to visit one of La Trobe’s remote campuses, a couple of hours north of Melbourne at Wodonga. The La Trobe campus teams were generous with their experiences of running remote campuses, talking about where integration makes sense and where autonomy makes sense – hugely valuable learning for our London campus developments. And I spoke to La Trobe staff about the potential and pitfalls of Artificial Intelligence, joined an all-staff broadcast on the scope and ambition of the partnership and addressed high school principals about our experience of widening access and building student success. I’m enormously confident that the foundations have been laid for the Hallam-La Trobe partnership to flourish in the years ahead, after its progenitors, the two current Vice-Chancellors have moved on.
This was also an absorbing visit for other reasons. Australia saw a change of government in 2022, with a new Labor administration coming to power after a decade of right-wing government. The new Labor government has launched an ambitious programme of higher education reform which is called the ‘Accord’ process. I was accompanied on the Australia visit by Natalie Day, Hallam’s Head of Policy and Strategy, and herself a native of Melbourne, with a keen understanding of Australian higher education and politics. We had both been reading the discussion document which launched the Accord process in February and the interim report was published a few days before we arrived in Melbourne. We were keen to talk to Australian universities and policy makers about the process and they were eager to talk to us about our experience of higher education reform. I spent some time with the leadership team at RMIT talking through the Accord, I explored it in detail at La Trobe, and then in Canberra had been asked to talk to the federal Department of Education about England’s experience of higher education reform. In all, some 280 civil servants from the permanent secretary down joined my session on regulation and reform in higher education, looking at parallels between two countries where, if higher education policy is not the same, it certainly rhymes.
We live in a world of common, overlapping and sometimes, it can seem, overwhelming problems. When you face big problems, you need big, shared learning. There’s a huge amount to be said for learning from each other in the way we respond to those problems and working out where we have scope to work together. This was an opportunity to cement the relationship between Hallam and La Trobe – and it is a globally unique partnership. No other two universities in different countries have established so many links at so many levels of the universities – the potential for good is huge. But this was also an opportunity to promote Hallam as a leading university for thinking about policy and practice in higher education, at a time when Australia is asking fundamental questions about its universities, about who attends them and about how they are funded. As this country begins to think about how a likely change of government will shift the policy landscape, the parallels are often uncanny.