Keynote address at the University Strategic Planning and Resource Management Conference: UNSW's 2025 Strategy

I start by acknowledging the Traditional Owners of the land, the Boon Wurrung and Woiwurrung (Wurundjeri) peoples of the Kulin Nation and pay respect to their Elders, past and present.

I’m honoured to have been asked to speak with you about the journey of UNSW’s 2025 Strategy. I arrived at UNSW in 2015 from the UK and in the four years since, much has happened – we have celebrated some early achievements, identified challenges and learnt some lessons.

This is one of the first times I have spoken in any detail about our strategy outside UNSW. I do so with some hesitation. Partly, because it is too early to proclaim success. Partly, because you are such an expert audience. But, also because I do not want to give an advertorial for UNSW.

So, I will do my best to give a balanced perspective on what is an ongoing journey, by covering five areas. First, the importance of a shared, inspiring vision in leading strategic change – the ‘why’. Second, the approach taken to developing our strategy – the ‘what’. Third, the preparation of our implementation plan – the ‘how’ and ‘when’. Fourth, a quick run through of some of the successes to date, to give context for the fifth area, which highlights some examples of the challenges, both predictable and unpredictable.

A small caveat at the outset – you’ll hear from many colleagues over the course of the next two days and there’ll be a vast array of different approaches. No single approach to strategy is right or wrong. This is mine, and I hope that there is something in what I have to say that you find relevant or useful.

Vision – the why

So, first, articulating a Vision – the ‘why’. My approach to leadership has served me well in roles in healthcare, research, charities, a start-up and at universities. Fundamentally, it involves articulating a high-level vision that staff in the organisation and other stakeholders genuinely share which can bring them together with a shared purpose.

I have found that approach can energise an organisation, motivate staff to deliver more and help when there are setbacks because you can refer back again and again to the rationale of what we are trying to do.This approach works but only if the vision is genuinely held. Acting or faking will be quickly exposed.

At UNSW the unashamedly ambitious, altruistic and idealistic vision I articulated was:
- We are here to serve society
- We are here to make a genuine difference to people’s lives through all the activities of the university – ‘people, people, people’ is our mantra
- We are here to have a local, national and global impact
- And we commit to excellence in all that we do, regardless of what that means individually.

There was a risk that this vision could have been regarded by some as naïve or an overreach, but my previous experience gave me a degree of confidence. I was also helped by my eminent predecessor, Professor Fred Hilmer, leaving a very smoothly-run university which was in good shape financially. There was no crisis and the UNSW community was ready for a big vision and potentially had the resources to deliver it.

But how do you check your vision has support?

When I arrived, I spent many weeks out in the faculties, schools and divisions talking to people, introducing myself to students and staff, alumni and other stakeholders, and asking them about their work and what type of an institution they wanted UNSW to be.

In those early weeks, I wasn’t focused on the detail of the Strategy. I wanted to explain what I believed in – my view that a great university of the 21st century is a servant of society and that universities have massive potential and power to deliver social and economic benefit to advance a just society.

The response to this message, repeated over and over again, was positive and quickly created an atmosphere of excitement and potential on campus. For many, it was an opportunity to talk about what fundamentally motivated them.

Whether in a university or elsewhere, people want their work to contribute to something which matters. So that is the best place to start.

Strategy – the what

So, after the ‘why’, the second area to develop was – the ‘what’. Having established that there was an appetite for the big, bold vision, the next challenge was to use that energy to develop an equally big, bold strategy. The effort to get buy-in to the vision and strategy was enormous, running over a nine-month period from March to November 2015 and involving the entire UNSW community in meetings, discussions, survey and online submissions, a green paper, a white paper and then the definitive strategy. It was exhaustive and exhausting – but exhilarating.

A key requirement was establishing a sense of ownership of the strategy amongst staff at UNSW. When the strategy was complete, the majority of staff knew it existed, could articulate some of the components and felt they had some input and importantly that it reflected the vision we had started with.

We agreed on a 10-year strategy – long enough to measure whether or not it was achieved – and broadly followed a rule of threes. Three first level major strategic pillars, each containing 2-3 next level strategic themes.

Agreeing on Pillar 1 was easy – Academic Excellence, which included a stretch target of moving from being within the top 100 universities globally to being amongst the top 50 universities – knowing that would require a transformation of our research and educational offering in scale and quality.

Pillar 2 was Social Engagement with three themes:
• equity, diversity and inclusion
• thought leadership and
• knowledge transfer – delivering economic growth through turning our research discoveries into economic benefit in partnership with industry.

Pillar 3 emerged as Global Impact and focused on our contribution through international education and our international outreach through creation of a new Institute of Global Development. As part of the strategy, we quietly changed our name and strapline from UNSW Australia ‘Never stand still’, to UNSW Sydney ‘Australia’s Global University’ which better explained where we are and what we do. I want to reiterate the criticality of the consultation process as the foundation for delivering the massive change process Strategy 2025 required.

You all work in universities, so you know how hard it is to achieve consensus on anything. When Strategy 2025 was released in October 2015 we conducted a survey to assess the response. Only 0.9 per cent of staff opposed or strongly opposed the plan. 9.1 per cent were neutral, and 90 per cent either supported or strongly supported the Strategy. That high level of consensus was crucial time and time again during implementation. It provided confidence that we were going forward with a genuinely shared vision.

Implementation – the how and when

The third step I need to emphasise was developing a detailed implementation plan and determining how we would pay for it – the ‘how’ and ‘when’. Developing an implementation plan is the part of the process where you have to get down into the nitty gritty detail. The exercise goes from inspirational and exciting to complex and detailed. It is key to success but much less visible and glamorous.

We put together a team of some of our most talented professional and academic leaders, supported by external consultants, Strategy, to work intensely, for six months, on producing a detailed implementation plan. It involved working through the numerous projects proposed within our strategic themes, assessing feasibility, time scale and resource implications involving steps to improve performance, system upgrades, a new academic calendar, growth in student numbers, major project planning, capital building works, recruitment of stellar researchers, education-focused posts, equity and diversity strategies, new global partnerships and more.

It also involved the thorny issue of funding. The annual budget for UNSW in 2016 was approximately $2 billion totalling about $20 billion across the 10 years of the Strategy, much of which is committed to essential activities. We calculated that successfully delivering all aspects of the Strategy would require mobilising an extra $3 billion over the 10 years.

It was calculated that approximately 50% would come from new income streams from philanthropy, international education and industry partnerships, and the other 50% through more efficient use of our existing $20 billion per annum – spread over the 10 years this implied a 7.5% improvement in efficiency.

The implementation team also prepared a set of metrics and KPIs for assessing our progress in delivery of the Strategy. It was important to set these metrics in advance.

Once completed, what was incorporated in our strategy and implementation plan was one of the most ambitious programmes of change and development any university worldwide had proposed. The plan touched every aspect of every part of the university from professional services IT, HR, estates, finance, comms, hospitality, enterprise to the way we deliver and scrutinise our research, education and other academic activities.

Quite a few people at UNSW were very nervous at that point and wondered if such a major and ambitious change process was feasible. The Strategy, implementation plan, finances and metrics were intensively scrutinised by UNSW Council and approved, allowing us to proceed in mid-2016 with the full support of staff and the Council for our plans and the spend.


The fourth section of my talk is to give you a brief overview of achievements to date before I get on to the challenges. Given the scale and complexity of the change programme I don’t have enough time this morning to talk about all of the 120 programs and initiatives we have implemented but here is a snapshot of what we have achieved to date, under our three pillars. We have invested in innovative education.

UNSW’s new Scientia Education Experience includes a completely new three term structure called UNSW 3+, launched a few weeks ago after two years planning – opening opportunities to rethink the way we do assessment and for students to take internships and overseas opportunities, while better aligning with our overseas counterparts and optimising the use of our campus.

We have invested $140 million in state-of-the-art educational digital technologies, educational design, student support, learning environments, work readiness and careers; have 660 courses being redesigned for online or blended delivery; and have created 536 new learning spaces for students.

We have appointed 220 Education-Focussed academics – a new cadre of academics, passionate about delivering high-quality education with time in their schedules to devote to it, and career opportunities up to full professorial level.

We have appointed 40 Fellows to the Scientia Education Academy, to spread best practice in teaching and we have introduced teaching peer review.

We have invested in research excellence

We are spending $1.4 billion on attracting research talent.

By 2025, we want to have recruited 100 stellar academic staff who are in the top few per cent in their field.

We have made 47 recruits to date, with another 10 in the pipeline, 41% of whom are women.

A coup last year was recruiting Nobel Laureate Professor Sir Fraser Stoddart, the 2016 Nobel Prize Winner for Chemistry, as our first substantive Nobel prize-winning Professor.

We have appointed 100 outstanding Scientia Fellows, giving promising researchers a tenure track fellowship with a career pathway commitment with unprecedented flexibility. Our target is 290 appointments by 2025.

Out of 10,000 expressions of interest we’ve appointed 197 PhD students under the new Scientia PhD program – 38% are women from STEM disciplines. Our target is to appoint 700 PhD scholars by 2025.

We have established, through a competitive process, four cross-cutting UNSW Futures Institutes – carrying out cross-faculty, cross-disciplinary work in ageing, cellular genomics, digital grid and materials and manufacturing. Our target is to invest $200m in 8-10 new institutes by 2025.

We have invested $450 million in new research infrastructure, and we’re embarking on a $2b venture with NSW Health which is the biggest estates development since the university was created in 1949 in the form of the Randwick Health Precinct, linking our campus and the Hospital campus.

We have prioritised forming powerhouse partnerships.

I’m proud of the creation of SPHERE, which stands for the Sydney Partnership for Health, Education, Research & Enterprise – bringing together 14 MRIs, healthcare organisations and universities across SE and SW Sydney.

To maximise our research impact at a state level, we created the NUW Alliance, which brings UNSW together with Newcastle and Wollongong universities. NUW is the State Government’s higher education partner for the Western Sydney Aerotropolis, springing up around the second airport.

Internationally, we have forged the PLuS Alliance, which sees us work closely across three continents with King’s College London and Arizona State University and includes a joint new Engineering school in London.

We have a big programme with Chinese universities and businesses through our TORCH programme which has led to approaching $200 million of contracts.

We have prioritised social engagement and a push for diversity.

We have been determined to achieve gender equity on campus.

For Academics Level D+, our target by 2025 is 40% women and we’re up to 38%. For Professional staff Level 10+, we have reached our target of 51%.

Of our Executive Team, 36% are now women. And we appointed UNSW’s first female DVC, and three female Deans. We had none before.

We also appointed Professor Megan Davis as our first Pro Vice-Chancellor Indigenous, and our first Provost, a woman, Professor Anne Simmons, started in post this week.

We have appointed Diversity Champions responsible for disability, gender, flexible work and leave, and LGBTIQ advocacy – complementing other strategic initiatives in the social engagement space: our Disability Inclusion Action Plan and our Indigenous Strategy.

We have our Grand Challenges program – which seeks to lead debate on climate change, refugees and migrants, living with 21st century technology and inequality.

And we have the infrastructure in place now to be the first university campus in the world to be carbon neutral for electricity on campus through solar technology. One hundred percent of our electricity needs will be powered by solar, this year.

All this whilst going through the extraordinary challenges of upgrading our IT system, our approach to HR and finance, refining our student services and delivering an estates capital programme of new buildings and upgrades in excess of $1 billion.

That is a long – incomplete – list. But it shows what is possible with a good team galvanised by the right vision, in a relatively short period of time.

Three years in, we have achieved or exceeded 83% of the KPIs set in 2016.


But there have of course been many challenges so the fifth topic I want to cover is to provide examples of challenges and obstacles both predictable and unpredictable. It is not all plain sailing and I did not expect it to be. Apart from anything else it has been exhausting for staff involved, who have worked flat out at the limit of their ability and capacity for three years. We have not achieved the full efficiencies and improvements to some of our services we had expected and some of the income streams have generated less than we hoped for.

The really challenging aspect of implementation is not the exciting new projects but in making change happen at speed and scale:
- complex areas like finance, IT, estates and HR need to implement massive change whilst the high-speed train is running at full speed and accelerating
- some staff find change difficult with dips in morale, even for those fully committed to the Strategy
- change is particularly painful when staff are either required to be moved on or asked to work in very different ways
- unplanned constraints on resources and unexpected factors in the external environment add further pressure.

All of these things can stretch the goodwill and commitment to the Strategy captured through the engagement process, but it is precisely the time when that initial buy-in is so important.

I offer a few examples to illustrate the challenges.

First our journey with IT. Part of Strategy 2025 was a push for operational excellence – an aspect of which was upgrading our legacy IT systems and capabilities into a more contemporary offering.

Many other parts of S25 have also required a parallel technology response – for example, upgrading student enrolment and online services, and transitioning to our 3+ calendar. This exposed the scale of change needed to move from some outdated systems whilst keeping everything running.

In 2017, in the middle of major IT upgrading, parts of our data storage system failed, causing major stress.

This failure happened because the external supplier moving our on-site, dated data storage systems into a contemporary tier 3 facility, didn’t adequately understand the complexity of a large university. So, I would say, be doubly – perhaps triply – sure the supplier and implementation team understand your unique needs. This blip happened at a point of maximum pressure on IT, affecting morale and trust. The good news is that we recovered and now have a first class, well-functioning, fit for purpose, contemporary data storage solution.

And this bring me to a point I want to make about luck. In the case of IT, we were unlucky. But, in other areas of the Strategy, the universe has been kind. I could spend a lot of time telling you about the challenge of changing the way we think and act about our finances and managing them in a way suited to our ambitious plan.

I won’t get bogged down in detail but you can probably imagine the challenge of shifting the organisation from a set and forget budget model – where each part of the organisation could use money allocated as it wished as long as it stayed in budget – to a dynamic system in which funds are rigorously used to drive the shared strategic objectives and shifted around between schools, faculties and divisions to make it possible. That requires a very different approach to monitoring and agreeing spend, linkage of staff FTEs and positions, to budgets and plans and a different ethos to the use of university resources.

We now have a high degree of confidence about mobilising $2.5 billion of the $3 billion funding we set out to generate and we are working on the rest whilst putting in place robust processes fit for the purpose of our ambitious plans.

The final challenge with implementation I want to note is that however hard you try you will not please everyone.

Changing the university’s academic calendar to a 3-trimester model from the traditional 2-semester model presented a mammoth two-year change management task in itself. The benefits of the new structure, which I mentioned earlier, were clear to us. But the change also represented a huge amount of work and a significant change in mindset from a pretty rusted-on 2-semester format. For staff, the impending process meant streamlining all course content and assessments, as well as putting together the facilities, IT and student support infrastructure required by an entirely new calendar.

And for students, it meant planning their study load differently, and fitting work and personal responsibilities around a new study structure and, in what was a horrifying prospect to some, coming to terms with a slightly contracted summer holiday.

The lesson here is that while you may try, you have to be comfortable with not being able to keep everyone happy. A few weeks in to the launch of UNSW 3+ most staff and students seem to have been won over.

I will finish by summarising some of the key lessons and messages so far from the implementation of our 2025 Strategy:
• Time put in to getting strong buy-in to a clear vision and strategy is crucial particularly when inevitable challenges arise.
• Have a detailed and realistic implementation plan with milestones, and performance indicators even though not all of them will be achieved on time. I think our plan was in some areas over-optimistic.
• Anticipate pressure points at each stage and prepare for them.
• Put in place systems and processes to support staff and ensure they have the resilience to deal with sustained pressure and unforeseen challenges.
• Acknowledge mistakes promptly – as we did with our finances – and act quickly
• Flexibility is key. Plans change and an adaptable leadership style is crucial.

I said earlier that there is no one right approach to leading through change but achieving buy-in to a genuine vision to make a difference – the ‘why’ – makes it much easier to maintain momentum and goodwill when things get difficult.

Next steps

Where do we go from here? 2019 will be a year of consolidation where we celebrate our achievements, redress things that have not gone well, revise some components of the original plan and add in some new things.

We are repeating the extensive consultation and engagement process conducted in 2015 to re-energise and ensure that the buy-in, ownership and engagement of staff is sustained. We are calling this process 2025+ and we are making it clear to staff that it’s not starting again, it’s being strategic, learning from experience, and capitalising on new opportunities which perhaps weren’t evident back when we started.

The entire UNSW community has always been galvanised by our mission to be part of something global, and to make a difference to the community. This is what I keep coming back to. The sum of what we’re trying to achieve is much larger than just the parts.

The benefits keep flowing and, just this morning, we received excellent news in the ERA where the proportion of UNSW research classified as 4 or 5 has shot up from 72% in 2015 to 91%. That didn’t happen by chance. It involved an enormous collective effort and the positive glow will energise our staff to do even more.

Thank you