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La Trobe University’s five-year Strategic Plan

Vice-chancellor Paul Johnson discusses the new plan, the decreasing number of international students and the government's proposed lift of caps on government-funded enrolments. Jean Kemshal-Bell reports.

Next Wednesday La Trobe University vice-chancellor Paul Johnson will be announcing the university’s five-year Strategic Plan.

The new plan has four core objectives: transform students’ lives through learning; generate new useful, relevant knowledge through research; the professional and personal development of staff; and to ensure that the university always operates in a sustainable and ethical manner.

‘None of these objectives are entirely new but in this Strategic Plan they are made much more direct,’ Mr Johnson says. ‘I would say the new emphasis on the sustainable and ethical development and operation is significant, and that’s going to be a very major commitment on the part of the university.’

On the agenda will be considerable development of infrastructure, which is part of the university’s larger long-term plan. The Bundoora campus’ Borchardt Library will see an additional 815 study spaces for students, and there will be further work completed on teaching and recreation spaces.

In response to the growing number of students, rural campuses will also benefit from new infrastructure. In Shepparton, a $10 million campus will be opened at the end of the year. While a $65 million building for health science facilities will be built in Bendigo.

There will also be a change in curriculum, with the vice-chancellor saying the university is moving toward a more hands-on approach to learning. ‘There’s a general shift from teacher-lead education to enquiry-based learning,’ Mr Johnson says. ‘Enquiry-based learning with students working in groups requires a different kind of physical set up to traditional lecture rooms and classrooms.’

If Labor is re-elected, from 2012 caps on the number of students that universities can enrol will disappear.  As a result, the vice-chancellor says universities will be competing more aggressively with one another, meaning the challenge for La Trobe will be to grow in a manageable way.

‘Here at La Trobe, what we have done is set ourselves a growth target for student expansion to increase undergraduate numbers by 30 per cent for 2015,’ he says. ‘We are well on the way for that. This year for instance across our regional campuses first-year enrolments was 30-40 per cent above what it has been in previous years. And enrolment was 25 per cent higher in Melbourne.

‘The constraint for us is physical resources. We are doing work to plan expansion of our physical resources and make sure that we have the financial capacity to undertake some of those expansions. And we are also looking at ways to use existing resources more efficiently.’

The plan includes actions the university should take in response to the decline of international students, who make up a major proportion of Australian universities’ funding. There has been a decrease in the number of international students enrolling in Australian universities as a result of the higher value of the Australian dollar, changes in visa arrangements, and general concern about political discussion in Australia on restricting migrants and further reducing the number of visas available.

‘University admission of international students has declined in the second part of 2010 and all the projections are that there’s certainly not going to be any growth and likely to be a further decline in 2011,’ says the vice-chancellor. ‘That’s going to impact on the universities.  It will reduce revenue. Universities have driven the international student market very heavily over the last 15 years in order to stay afloat financially.’

Mr Johnson says that La Trobe is at a lower risk at losing funding than other universities because the university has a smaller proportion of international students. However, he says it is important that La Trobe still takes a proactive approach.

‘We are doing a lot of work in terms of going out to other countries,’ he says. ‘Just last week the Dean of Science faculty spent a week in India meeting many people in India’s higher education sector, talking to prospective students and so on. We are also trying to make sure that we provide the best possible support for our international students. We are being very conservative in our forward projections about the revenue that we can get from international students.’

Students and staff are invited to attend the vice-chancellor’s launch of the Strategic Plan at the Bundoora campus (with video-casts to other campuses) on Wednesday, 18 August from 12:00 – 1:00 pm

To read more about the strategy click here.

Jean Kemshal-Bell is an Honours Journalism student at La Trobe University and part of upstart’s editorial team.

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