A Conversation with Professor Sally Walker, former Vice-Chancellor of Deakin University

In the third of our series of blogs based on discussions with key participants in the Australian Higher Education sector, we speak with Professor Sally Walker AM.

Sally served as the fifth Vice Chancellor and President of Deakin University from 2003 to 2010.  She subsequently joined the global consulting firm, Deloitte, as a Principal in 2013 and now advises a number of Universities on strategic issues. We talked to her in her personal capacity, rather than in her role at Deloitte.

As a former Vice-Chancellor and still significantly involved in the sector, you have a unique perspective of higher education in Australia.  While the issue of government funding seems to dominate much of the air time, what are other challenges?

Like all large, complex organisations, there are always challenges for universities.  One interesting dynamic is coming from the interplay between universities’ budgetary constraints and the way they must adapt to meet the digital disruption affecting the sector.  By this I am talking about online learning and greater web enabled learning.  The other, not unrelated, area is the evolution of the university workplace as it adapts to a more market driven environment.

Depending on where a university is presently positioned and where it wants to get to, we could see different institutions going down quite different strategic paths.  Having said that, a matter that is probably beneficial for the recruitment industry, is that all institutions will continue to require ‘star’ talent, particularly as a means of assisting differentiation.

Are our universities structured appropriately to meet the future challenges?  How do you think they will need to change to adapt?

I think the structure will definitely change in the future and we will see a more flexible model, particularly as traditional universities will need to compete with the private providers.  This may perhaps result in an ‘hour glass’ model within universities.  This is where there is a strong group of academics at the senior professorial level and a large group at the lower post doc level, but a smaller group than in the past at the mid-career academic level.  It is likely that we will see individuals within this mid-level group moving into and out of academia rather than spending their entire careers in the university environment.

I think we will see more outsourcing of teaching as universities aim to be as flexible as possible.  Also, I would not be surprised to see an increase in the flow of talent offshore at both senior and junior levels.

What lesson do you think we can learn from looking at trends in Higher Education in other countries?

We need to be careful in making overseas comparisons as the landscape offshore is very different.  For example, from a fee perspective, in the US very few students actually pay full fees and in the UK there is a very different capped model.  I think it is much more informative to look closer to home and observe what has happened in the TAFE sector.  In a competitive system, universities will need to work on what differentiates them from each other and from private providers. 

Reflecting on your time as Vice-Chancellor at Deakin, what do you consider to be some of the highlights?

In the words of Jim Collins I was trying to go from “Good to Great”.  Deakin was a good university; I was trying to make it a great one.  There was lots to do at Deakin and there were challenges being a regional institution, but once we started to get the momentum going it was great to see the results.

No doubt securing the medical school was a highlight, but so was better engagement with careers teachers in schools.  They understood what we were trying to achieve as a university and they supported Deakin to become a university of choice.  Another highlight was the results in terms of student satisfaction – this takes time and there is a considerable lag in terms of results, but we were able to get some great outcomes.

What advice would you give to those academics that aspire to senior leadership positions?  How does one balance the need to remain research active with the need to gain management experience?

I think there is a point in one’s career where you do have to make a decision about whether you want to be an academic engaged in research and teaching or take on an academic leadership-management role.  This is an individual decision and obviously for each person it is influenced by circumstances.  I enjoyed teaching and research, but I could not have achieved what I did at Deakin as an academic working in a faculty. My decision was influenced by observing Alan Gilbert as Vice-Chancellor of the University of Melbourne. Working with him was a highlight of my working life. I saw how important good leadership can be.

What are you working on now/doing now?

Working as a consultant at Deloitte is certainly a very different environment to Deakin, but I particularly like working with the very bright young people who are attracted to the working environment that Deloitte offers.  I am working with Universities on a range of projects regarding strategic growth strategies, digital disruption, governance and the future of the workplace. 

About Professor Sally Walker

Professor (Emeritus) Sally Walker AM
Principal, Consulting 

Professor Sally Walker joined Deloitte as a Principal in 2013. She was formerly Hearn Professor of Law, Chair of the Academic Board and Senior Deputy Vice-Chancellor at the University of Melbourne; she then served as the Vice-Chancellor and President of Deakin University from 2003- mid 2010.

Through Sally’s introduction of strategic planning and plan driven, incentive-based operational planning, Deakin University became a university of choice for students and its research performance improved significantly beyond expectations for a relatively young, regional University. In this time, Deakin’s student numbers grew more than those of any other Australian University. From being described as ‘cash-strapped’ in 2002, Deakin became one of Australia’s most successful Universities in financial terms with significant financial reserves. 

Rohan A. Carr
December 2014

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