When starting a new job, the initial priority for most people is simply to settle in as quickly as possible. To familiarise yourself with new processes and systems. To get your head down and avoid ruffling too many feathers. Not so Professor Glyn Davis.
Within a year of taking up the position of vice-chancellor of the University of Melbourne, he oversaw a set of reforms which replaced its 96 undergraduate courses with just six undergraduate degrees, and moved medicine, law, engineering, architecture and several others to postgraduate programmes. Not surprisingly, the move made headlines far beyond Melbourne. Many felt he was fixing something that wasn’t broken.
A little over a decade later and the reforms have helped cement the university’s global reputation, secure its pre-eminence in Australian higher education, and safeguard its financial sustainability, and are widely seen as a masterstroke of transformational leadership. As impact goes, it is hard to imagine anything better. So what’s the story behind this success?
It’s fair to say that Glyn Davis does not look like your average revolutionary. Ensconced in his book-lined office at the heart of the university’s Parkville Campus, he exudes an air of donnish scholarship while remaining as down to earth as when I first met him many years ago. Perhaps this is due in part to his rich background. Not for him the limits of one sector or role, his career has seen him work in senior positions in government as well as hold academic posts in Queensland, the UK and the US. And it was these experiences overseas which proved the catalyst for the Melbourne reforms.
“Melbourne was a good example of a standard Australian university when I joined in 2005,” he recalls. “For 150 years, most Australian students graduated when they were 22 or 23, and they would never come on campus again. It’s a model that’s fine and worked well, but it doesn’t offer much diversity. If you wanted to study a different way, there aren’t many choices. For 20 years I’d been wondering why we didn’t have much diversity and mulling over what could be done to improve it. Having worked in the UK and the US, I had a sense of what other systems looked and felt like, and I wanted Australia to have something similar.”
It was with this mindset that he undertook his interviews for the vice-chancellor role. “I was pretty clear that I thought it was time to change and that only Melbourne could make this change,” he explains. “The university was so far out in front, it could afford to make the change without worrying about surrendering its market position.”
It’s good to talk
The university council, while unsure of exactly what lay ahead, was aware that Davis was planning some big changes when they selected him. “This was important because if you don’t arrive in an authorising environment, it’s going to be very, very hard,” he says. “I felt it was vital to be upfront about that, so if they didn’t want to go that route they could choose someone else.” Davis, who had plenty of time to map out his plans, was fully aware that communication would be critical.
“I had a year before I arrived, so I had a lot of time to think about it,” he says. “I thought very hard about what I thought was possible and how one might do this, and also how to explain it to the world. If you’re a very successful institution, why would you dump what you’re doing and do something different? That’s never going to be easy to explain.”
Roots of the reforms
Davis started work in January 2005. He was taking over an institution of more than 60,000 students, 8,000 staff and a budget of more than AUD2 billion. It’s worth noting that this wasn’t his first time behind the vice-chancellor’s desk. He had previously served in that role at Griffith University in Queensland – an experience he put to good use in his early days at Melbourne.
“I did the thing expected of every CEO – meet every faculty, meet the staff and, having done this once before, I knew to say nothing,” he reveals. “If you give away a clue of what you’re going to do, people then tailor what they say to their assumption about what it is you’re looking for, and you don’t want that. You actually want to know what they think. I was quietly getting a sense of what people’s aspirations were and what they would, in my view, accept or not accept.”
Although Davis had a vision of where he wanted to go, he moved carefully before sharing it more widely. Six months in, he published a discussion paper which flagged a range of choices, including broadly the model he wanted to adopt – “that was a way of beginning to shape the conversation and to show people they were being listened to”. This led to a more intense set of discussions with staff in the second half of the year, culminating in a white paper which set out the preferred option.
“What became clear was that I was pushing at an open door,” he says. “People may not have thought a lot about it, but they weren’t inherently hostile to the idea, and some people were deeply attracted to it. And so I wasn’t going to hit a very conservative group of staff who would be opposed to it.”
The foundation stones of Davis’ reform plan were to reduce the number of undergraduate degrees and turn most of the professional courses into a master’s programme. “The core idea was that you would spend your first three years doing a broad undergraduate degree before you had to choose a profession,” he explains.
“I was always astounded by how it wasn’t uncommon to find that one in three lawyers, engineers or doctors no longer practised in the field they trained for. They often had some perfectly sensible reasons, but it costs the taxpayer a quarter of a million dollars to train a doctor, for example. So when someone discovers at the end of their medical degree that it probably wasn’t the right choice for them, that’s some other talented person who missed out, and that’s a quarter of a million dollars the Australian taxpayers have spent and are not going to get a lot for.”
But with extra age comes extra experience, insight and belief in what it is you want to do with your life, he continues. “At 22, you’ve got three years of undergraduate study and all of the work that goes with it, and by the time we make the call who goes into medicine, we’re much more likely to get it right,” he says. “The student is much more likely to prosper because it’s really the thing they want to do. That was the logic. And that was how to sell it. To sell it against people’s own experience, not to sell it abstractly, but to explain why this will be better for students, better for the university and better for taxpayers.”
From vision to reality
In his second year, 2006, Glyn established a Curriculum Commission, comprising 25 academics, to flesh out the preferred model. “And I stayed off the Curriculum Commission as the CEO because that allowed them to debate the model I put to them. So I’m proposing, they’re deliberating, and they’ll take it to the Academic Board. They spent a year designing how the new model would look.
“At the final Academic Board meeting late on in 2006, some 600 people were there,” he recalls. “There was not a seat in the house and there was no way to read the mood. I sat at the front, smiled, and hoped it was going to be all right. If they all turned up to howl it down, it was going be very bad. But after a long set of questions and discussion it was unanimously supported, which was extraordinary – not a single person voted ‘No’. That’s why you have to have allies and that’s why, particularly in an institution like a university, you have to work with people so they feel it’s theirs. By the time I put it up, they were proud of this model. They had put a year’s work into it. They were determined it could work and ultimately they were more sure than I was by that stage, because they’ve been closer to it than I had.”
It turned out, however, that gaining agreement was the easy bit. “The following 12 months was the hardest year of my life, and I suspect it was the same for lots of other people,” admits Davis. “This is because you had to design the new curriculum, you had to hold the whole show together and deal with a now very grumpy set of students who felt the value of their courses, which would be retired, would be eroded.”
Again, communication and reassurance came to the fore, but it wasn’t easy. “We had to reassure them we were on track and to show them we were on track, but I could feel morale drop away, as often happens in very big change processes,” admits Davis. “The initial enthusiasm was overtaken by the slow realisation of the workload involved. And as you go from design to implementation, it’s a really hard press because you’re going into the unknown and you can’t know if it’s going to work. Even when the early signs are good, you know you’ve actually got five or six years before you can say with any confidence whether it has done no harm, and you won’t be able to say that it’s better than what was previously there for quite a long time.”
But in March 2008, the first cohort of students appeared. “When those first students arrived, so thrilled to be there and excited with the new curriculum, the staff picked up their enthusiasm,” says Davis. “And in 2008 the place just hummed. It really worked and you knew pretty early on that it will work really well, and that was such an immense relief.”
Looking back on the process from the safe harbour of 2017, Davis pinpoints his ability to draw down on the finances of the university to help support the transition as being a critical factor. “We drew down AUD78 million and invested it in supporting people to do curriculum writing and bringing in additional staff,” he says. “We needed to do transition work, fund an advertising campaign, and invest in new student services and student advice centres.”
He also ensured he was as visible as possible. “As a vice-chancellor, you’re supposed to be representing the university all over the place, but in those two years I was around as much as possible,” he recalls. “I’d walk around the campus and talk to people, so they all understood that we’re in this together. This was really important. If you don’t feel that the people on top know why they’re doing it and know how to do it, why would you, as a member of the team, have any confidence?”
It is clear now that Davis’ confidence in the reforms was fully justified. Today, the university is placed number one in the rankings in Australia and by a large margin – having been second or third before the new model was implemented. And worldwide, it has leapfrogged from being ranked 92 on the highly respected Academic Ranking of World Universities to number 40 – an extraordinary move forward replicated by only one other university, in Singapore.
Davis, who is set to move on to pastures new before too long, can reflect on a job well done and an impact well worth the occasional sleepless night. “It was quite nerve-racking, as all change is if it’s meaningful,” he concludes.
“And this was overthrowing 160 years of teaching, scrapping everything we did and starting again – it doesn’t get more serious than that. I felt the risk intensely, but when you go through big change, part of being the leader is to keep reassuring people that it’s all going well.”
And a change that goes well is the aspiration of every organisation seeking major change.
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