Jana Carson was one of the recipients of the first annual Staff International Experience Fund (SIEF). The SIEF is an award which enables staff members to travel to and engage in collaborative work with an international partner institution or institutions. Jana, Manager of Evaluation & Accountability in Institutional Analysis & Planning, received an award to visit six institutions in Australia in April 2015. 

Jana writes about her experience travelling and working with her new Australian colleagues:

What was the purpose of your trip?

I visited six institutions in Australia: three in Melbourne (Monash University, Swinburne University, and the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology (RMIT), two in Sydney (the University of Technology, Sydney (UTS) and Macquarie University) and one in Wollongong (the University of Wollongong).

I intended to learn promising practices related to: strategic planning, surveys, rankings, performance indicators and business intelligence systems. My hope was to bring back learning that I could put in place right away in my team and for the institution as well as network with some of my peers who have been working in these areas for a long time and build on-going professional relationships with them. The opportunity to visit a variety of institutions gave me a broader picture of the Australian system and helped me gain a better understanding of the strengths and challenges of each university.

What is the Australian Higher Education system like?

The Australian higher education system shares some similarities with Canada, yet is in many ways very different. Higher education is one of Australia’s main exports, so there is a very strong focus on attracting international students and building international profile and partnerships. Funding and credentialing is regulated through the federal government and each institution is required to obtain a registration number before offering a new program (called a CRICOS number). This allows Australian universities to have a strong focus on understanding the market need for their programs and their ability to attract international students and partnerships.

What are your counterparts in Australia doing?

Universities in Australia are working hard to understand their strengths and to use data effectively to help support their decision-making. All the universities that we visited were keenly aware of the fierce competition they face (locally and internationally) to draw top students and faculty. Institutions are all trying to answer the same questions: who are our peers? How do we know we are doing well? How do we determine what we can do better? Where do we focus our efforts? Rankings data, survey data and strategic planning all help to answer parts of these questions.

  • Strategic planning at the institutions we visited was often communicated widely across campus and incorporated in a couple of important ways: a) as a standing agenda item on executive management teams and b) reporting on progress as an integrated part of the budget and academic cycle. Timelines and reporting templates helped to facilitate this process but strong leadership from the University executive is what drove the process forward.
  • Rankings and survey data helped inform discussions on research productivity and international reputation. Research intensive universities like Monash benchmarked themselves on a set of indicators using the Group of Eight as a comparator group. However, all universities were either in the process of, or had already developed, a set of indicators and peer institutions that they could use to help inform their performance. Universities like Swinburne and Macquarie used the Group of Eight as aspirational peers and Australian Technology Network institutions used that group as a comparator but also the Group of Eight institutions for some selected indicators. Other institutional data, such as enrolment data, was also used to inform strategic discussions.
  • All universities in Australia participate in an employment survey after their students graduate and there was a strong focus on understanding what drives and contributes to good student outcomes when it comes to employment and employment skills after graduation.
  • Bibliometric data (data on publications and citations) was used to help understand the university’s research productivity including areas where the University has strong research productivity as well as areas where the University has developed strong partnerships through publications with international and industry partners.

What have your learned that will change how you do your job?

So what does all this information boil down to? Some things I plan to build on right away are:

  • Practices around our University ranking submissions that will help us better showcase our international reputation
  • Strategies around how to coordinate and communicate about our surveys (for example, how to ensure good response rates and how to communicate the surveys we participate in and their results)
  • Good practices around strategic planning – we brought back some great examples of the kind of reporting that is helpful for decision-makers and some examples of how can data be presented in a meaningful and engaging way
  • Some examples of ways that Australian universities are using data to help inform their decisions that Waterloo could consider: survey data, bibliometric data and rankings data. We could also learn about how universities are handling areas like program planning, enrolment and entrepreneurship

What did Australian universities have to say about UWaterloo?

I learned that there are many things that Waterloo already does well! For example, I learned that our strategic plan and its accountability framework are being well communicated in an open and transparent way, and that our reporting on the strategic plan is using some innovative practices that other institutions were really interested in hearing more about (our accountability framework website was extremely well received!). Our process of communicating and beginning to coordinate surveys was in line with other good practices at Australian universities. Our commitment to understanding and optimizing our performance in world university rankings and to better understand our subject-based rankings and bibliometric data was consistent with what I heard from other universities.

Our hosts at Australian universities were warm and engaging and open to discussion. Two really valuable things that I learned was the regard that other universities had for Waterloo’s co-op program and for its entrepreneurial spirit through centres like Velocity, Conrad and the Accelerator Centre. These are strengths that we often talk about internally at Waterloo, however, it was really wonderful to hear it directly from others and at institutions so far away from Canada!

Was your trip personally rewarding?

My experience in Australia taught me so much both personally and professionally. I learned that international travel sometimes involves dealing with adverse events, like a category 2 cyclone which delayed our landing in Sydney as well as flooded the highway we were planning to take to Wollongong. The Minister of Labour actually sent out an email telling workers to go home while we were at UTS!

It was also a great thrill to see the Australian landscape. The Great Ocean Road, the Twelve Apostles and the Sea Bridge Highway were spectacularly beautiful. I saw fairy penguins (yes, they are as magical as they sound) at St. Kilda beach, made friends with a kangaroo at an animal sanctuary just outside Melbourne and saw a koala sleeping in a eucalyptus tree. I saw wild cockatoos, lorikeets and kookaburras. I also learned that black swans in Australia are possibly even more frightening than Canada geese when they charge people.

I learned that instead of, “How are you?” Australians say, “How’re you going?” and instead of, “No problem!” they say “That’s alright!” The experience of seeing and working in another part of the world will be with me forever.

It will not only make me better at my job, but it has also given me experiences that make me a better person. Someone who has felt warmth extended to strangers, who has seen incredible beauty that has brought a little more wonder into my world and who appreciates even more now the value of experiencing a different part of the world. I am so grateful to everyone who made this trip possible.

                                                   - Jana Carson