University of Wollongong: adapting to a rapidly changing world

The closing weeks of 2017 were dramatic for Australia’s higher education sector, with the federal government backing repeated calls for universities to keep a ‘laser focus’ on their students by announcing far-reaching funding reforms in its Mid-Year Economic and Fiscal Outlook statement.

As shockwaves reverberated through the sector, the University of Wollongong (UOW) quietly went about adapting to these long-anticipated changes in a way that reflected the institution’s history, culture and graduates.

UOW is a research-intensive, financially sound institution with an international reputation for producing career-ready graduates whose broad skills and deep sense of purpose make them highly sought after by employers.

It’s quite an achievement for a relatively young university.

Despite being an independent institution for just 42 years, UOW is described as one of the best modern universities in the world – a fitting accolade considering its overall ranking among the top 2% of universities world-wide and among the top 1% for the categories of law, engineering, arts/humanities and for the quality of its graduates.

Domestically, the federal government’s own Quality Indicators for Learning and Teaching (QILT) last year ranked UOW as the best university in New South Wales and the ACT across nine undergraduate study areas and for overall postgraduate study as well as for developing generic skills in postgraduate business.

UOW is also Australia’s only public funded university to achieve 5-stars in all student experience measures in the 2018 Good Universities Guide: Overall experience; Skills development;

Student support; Teaching quality and Learning resources and learner engagement.

The university’s international reputation for world-class research and exceptional teaching quality has been paramount to its dramatic growth and success. Total student numbers in the last 10 years have grown nearly 50%, compared to a sector average of 41%, while its international student body has grown 62% compared to the sector’s 43%.

UOW Chancellor, Ms Jillian Broadbent AO, believes the University’s strong student focus and stable leadership have been key elements behind this success.

“I think the University of Wollongong has always been focused on the learning experience and academic quality.

“Since it was spun out of the University of New South Wales 42 years ago, we have only had three Chancellors and four Vice- Chancellors. This has created stability with the institution’s mission and focus. We aim for quality and that has led us to achieve high international rankings.”

Ms Broadbent has an impressive resume of her own. She is currently on the Board of Woolworths Limited and Chair of Swiss Re Life & Health Australia Ltd and was the inaugural Chair of the Clean Energy Finance Corporation. She has held a number of Board positions, including those of the Reserve Bank of Australia, Coca- Cola Amatil Limited, ASX Limited, Special Broadcasting Service (SBS), Woodside Petroleum Ltd and Qantas Airways Ltd.

“UOW offers a quality student experience that is supportive and personalised. It has always had a good governing Council and as it has grown has remained community focused.

It was this fact that attracted Ms Broadbent to take the position of Chancellor in 2009.

“I have always been interested in education and making a contribution to the community, so this position was a good fit for me,” she says.

UOW holds as its core mission to: “be a global leader in discovery and learning, working to transform people and the world we live in” and encourages its students to find their ‘why’ – that deep sense of purpose for which its graduates are renowned.

One of the key inclusions into the curriculum during Ms Broadbent’s time to contribute to this mission has been the UOWx program.

Launched in 2015, under the current Vice-Chancellor Professor Paul Wellings CBE, UOWx is an initiative that sees students participating in a wide range of co-curricular activities that the University of Wollongong offers outside of academic coursework.

The program formally recognises students’ involvement in these activities, which are designed to give them an advantage in an increasingly competitive workforce.

There are currently over 150 recognised activities in which students can participate. Some of these include coaching indigenous students and working offshore in aid organisations.

“Those sorts of initiatives are consistent with UOW developing career-ready students who show intelligence beyond the facts,” Ms Broadbent says.

“We have found that through UOWx, student satisfaction has improved along with skills development and learner engagement.”

As well as creating broad minded graduates with life skills, the program is also helping cultivate career-ready graduates.

Students are encouraged to take on internships and industry projects to further their own experiences and help them determine their best career path.

To facilitate students’ entry into the workforce, UOW has built up substantial strategic research partnerships and collaborations with universities, institutes, governments, corporations and leading researchers across Australia and internationally.

Students work with these partners to tackle some challenging issues.

One PhD student recently explored how policies throughout the past century have impacted upon a community she describes as “often voiceless”. She is talking about the conversation surrounding disability welfare.

Another graduate is aiming to help revolutionise battery technology.

Battery technology is quickly becoming one of the most talked about energy resources of the future. Just consider the rise of Tesla and you’ll have a pretty solid understanding of the impact energy storage breakthroughs can have on future resource use and climate change.

These are just two of the big issues UOW is tackling through its collaboration with outside partners and its students are benefitting greatly.

Many UOW courses involve units of work integrated learning that are also contributing to its impressive graduate outcomes. Recently released government figures showed 73.1% of UOW graduates secure full-time employment within four months of completing their course – well above the national average of 69.5%.

“These workplace units are an important part of course development.

“The students undertaking these are not only developing as well- rounded, work-ready citizens, but are contributing to the high global standing of our graduates,” Ms Broadbent says.

She says good leaders need to have intelligence, focus and application. The university is working hard to develop these skills.

“We are developing their intelligence and focus, and the application is enhanced through broadening what they do outside of the university in work integrated learning and UOWx activities.

“I am always impressed by the quality of our students, particularly the top performing students I get to meet through my role.”

The students who do their homework on where to study and who want a positive experience, now seriously consider UOW, alongside major Sydney universities, as an option. 30% of UOW’s students are from regional NSW, but many across Sydney are now looking at the institution as a serious study destination and career-building opportunity.

That is in no small part due to the hard work the university has done to make the learning experience an engaging one, where work integrated learning and partnerships with research and industry groups, along with selective scholarship support, are creating a fulfilling journey.

Add to that its picturesque location between NSW’s bushland and beach just a short distance from both Sydney and Canberra and it’s easy to understand why UOW is a popular study destination for domestic and international students alike.

That is a great achievement and the university now hopes to continue the momentum of the last 10 years to firmly establish itself among the top 1% of the world’s universities.

And so, the expansion continues…

UOW’s new South Western Sydney campus in Liverpool, which officially opened in 2017, is growing steadily and expected to accommodate 7,000 students by 2030. UOW Dubai is planning to move into a larger, purpose-built home by 2020 and UOW’s recently acquired Hong Kong campus is also set for significant growth and development over the coming decade.

Meanwhile, construction of new state-of-the-art teaching facilities, student accommodation and medical research infrastructure is already underway in Wollongong.

For a modern university so obviously adept at responding to our rapidly changing world, facing the challenge of adapting to the latest changes in Australia’s higher education sector will be familiar territory.

Business First is a peer-to-peer magazine: written by CEOs and other high level executives, with interviews with some of the country’s best leaders.

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