$56 Million Grant To Increase Salary, Aid Development: Healey

The Fiji National University is introducing new measures with a grant of $56 million allocated in the 2017-18 Budget announced in Parliament last month. In an exclusive interview, Vice-Chancellor Professor
04 Aug 2017 14:22
$56 Million Grant To Increase  Salary, Aid Development: Healey
FNU Vice-Chancellor, Professor Nigel Healey

The Fiji National University is introducing new measures with a grant of $56 million allocated in the 2017-18 Budget announced in Parliament last month.

In an exclusive interview, Vice-Chancellor Professor Nigel Healey, confirmed the allocation which the university received would be utilised to improve research and learning and a salary increase for the academic staff.

Professor Healey revealed plans to restructure the programmes being offered at FNU that would be redesigned into a 15-point score for courses, along with research initiatives aligning with the nation’s workforce needs.

Professor Healey said the grant would fund various developmental projects.

Below are excerpts from Professor Healey’s interview.

Q: What are some of your challenges?

Healey: “I think we have basically just been doing a look back today through our Human Resources committee and all of the changes we’ve made in HR policies and processes.

“I think that has been quite a significant challenge.  When I started, it was clear that the colleges that had made the universities in 2010 still retained many of their different structures, processes and systems.

“There was a lot of variable practice and we thought that what we needed to do was move to unifying the university around a common structure.

“We made quite a few changes in terms of bringing all the colleges to the same organisational structure in schools and departments.

“We recognised there were weaknesses in the strength of our line management so we have actually reviewed the terms and conditions of heads of school and heads of departments and reselected all of those positions so we have a whole new middle-management tier in terms of senior leadership within the university; we had no university level leadership through the teaching and learning or research – any of the two core businesses of a university – so we appointed two new pro vice-chancellors for learning and teaching and research and they have been building their officers to actually to try for curriculum and the quality of our research.

“There were some quite significant challenges: our salaries were very uncompetitive salaries, we were running a large number of vacancies in key areas so we did a salary review and a salary restructure with PriceWaterhouseCoopers.

“It’s an ongoing process. We did phase one in June, and we’ve got phase two going to council this week to re-align a number of salaries to make us more competitive in the market and we have a number of changes planned in terms of academic promotions and around performance management to improve the performance of our workforce to try and build a much more service oriented culture within the university. So there’s a huge amount of work going in the HR space behind the scenes to try to better-position ourselves going forward.”

Question: What are your achievements?

Healey: “We’ve achieved a number of those things that I’ve outlined where we have already made the changes – we have replaced all our middle managers; we have moved to a standard college structure with schools and departments; we have replaced all the academic middle management staff; we have appointed all the pro vice-chancellors for learning and teaching and built their teams; we have carried out a thorough academic portfolio review; we have made changes across the curriculum – these are, in many cases, already been approved, others are going through – we’ve built a number of new degree programmes in line with stakeholder demands; we have completely overhauled our engineering programme – we have a four-year honours programme now designed to international benchmark standards; we’ve overhauled the veterinary science programmes.

“A number of the changes have already been accomplished; they’ve happened. It’s just a matter of bedding them down and consolidating and moving on, but the whole process of change will take some time.

“In some ways, it’s never complete because if you’re trying to maintain a high-performing university, your job’s never done; your courses have always have to be constantly refreshed.

“We’ve just been doing our stock-take on our accounting programmes: we have Certified Public Accountants (CPA) Australia accreditation of our prorammes, but our current plan is to launch a new master of professional accounting in February which will embed the CPA qualification within the programme. So, all the time, we’re constantly trying to improve the quality and relevance of our curriculum. Our goal has always been to produce students who are highly employable.

“That means wherever possible seeking national and international accreditation programmes; it means designing programmes that meet employer expectations; it means embedding work placements and internships within our programmes. We can always make things better.”

Q: What are some other changes you have planned?

Healey: “We’ve done a very comprehensive review of our academic qualifications looking at the quality of those qualifications particularly in terms of student satisfaction, student demand and graduate outcome in terms of proportion of students who get good jobs and salaries and we are making wholesale changes in our curriculum so we are moving to a common 15 point course size across the university and are moving back to semesters in 2018.

“We’re taking that opportunity to really overhaul all our academic programmes.

“In some cases we have brought in international experts from outside to help us review the programmes; for example, veterinary science, so that as we redesign the programmes we’re basing them on international best practice.

“Of course, all of these take time to rollout; we are having senate meetings once a week at the moment to try and get the curriculum changes through.

“On the research front, we’ve had a research ‘talanoa’ to try and identify the core things we should be clustering our research around and we’re determined those things align with the national priorities of Fiji.

“We are reviewing all of our finance processes because in the number of areas there are quite outdated practices and it has made us somewhat unreliable as a customer.   

“We’ve got a huge $40 million programme underway, in terms of repair and maintenance, to upgrade the quality of our campuses. We’ve got major works underway in Samabula to upgrade the resources in order that we can apply for international accreditation for our engineering programmes; we’ve got a new creative arts building planned for Nasinu campus; we’ve got a gymnasium planned; new buildings at Fiji Maritime Academy; we’re upgrading all of the hostels.

“I think on every front – teaching, research, Human Resource staffing and infrastructure – we are making major strides forward. We have received very valuable support from the Government. We took this ambitious agenda to the budget negotiations, made a request of $56 million in Government grants to support our ambition, and it was fully funded so we are very cognizant of the commitments that we’ve made to the government and our stakeholders.

“Another big area that we’ve made changes to is around student representations; we didn’t have a student representative association a year ago.

“We’ve now got a duly elected student body in the form of the Fiji National University Students’ Association with a president and vice president and we’re working very closely with our students to ensure that they’re part of the decision making process and that they guide the way in which we make decisions.

“We’re just about to take a five year capital programme to council which will be somewhere in the region of a $150 million of expenditure to try and bring us up to an international standard.

“Many of our buildings are quite old – they are legacy buildings – in some cases we are going to have to remove them altogether and some just need an upgrade. That’s in a nutshell, a raft of things we are doing.”

Q: How does the university perceive research?

Healey: “Research is one of the two core functions of a university – traditionally, we’ve always said the university’s role is to create and disseminate knowledge.

“The discussions we’ve had in the university have been focused around research goals that have a positive impact here in Fiji. So the research we are supporting financially – and rewarding through a point-management system – is the research that has societal impact, not very abstract; blue-skies research.

“If we’re going to make our salaries competitive across the sector, with the goal of attracting and retaining high quality academic staff, we need to ensure that our performance management systems and promotion systems reflect that.

“If we are setting benchmark. We expect all staff in the higher education streams – because we do have TVET (Technical Vocational Education and Training) teachers who are teaching vocational trade subjects where we only expect teaching and industry involvement – to be research active.

“We need to be much clearer about what the minimum thresholds are and we need our performance management systems to very effectively test that.

“When you come up for a review and we say a chunk of your time was made available to do research and we were expecting that this is a research with a societal impact that aligns with our key priorities – show us.

“Where are the research publications; which journals are they publishing in; where the research reports are for Government; where is the consultation work you did – you need to justify it all.

“I think our performance management systems have been rather unclear on that so I think it’s about being much clearer about what we expect because if you want staff to behave in a certain way you got to tell them what you expect of them and then you got to follow through with that and say: we’re now going to make you accountable for that

time; show us what you’ve done.

“And, if they’re doing what we want, we will reward people for it.

“It’s all part of re-organising our HR function to put much greater clarity into the way we set expectations.”

Q: What other ways is FNU competing with USP and the University of Fiji?

Healey: “We do all somewhat compete for staff in the sense that staff is mobile. We’re not just competing with University of Fiji and USP we are also competing with other universities in the sector. There is a global circulation of academic staff so we have to stay competitive.

“I think, particularly with USP, it’s about establishing a point of difference. We’re not trying to be the same as USP; USP is a regional provider. It only has a part of their curriculum delivered here in Fiji so it’s only got a partial footprint whereas we are a fully comprehensive university. We have agriculture, medicine, teacher training – we’ve the whole range- whereas USP, in Fiji, has just got a part of their operation here. I think because we have different roots – our roots are in vocational education. All of our colleges were once part of their respective ministries. And their purpose when they were setup – and their purpose today – is to train people for jobs.

“We train dentists, doctors, radiotherapists, teachers, accountants and nurses – and that’s our point of difference. We are unashamedly vocational. We do not do a range of academic disciplines that are rather abstract or unfocused; we’re focused on vocational qualifications that lead to a career. We just need to be the best at that. We don’t need to compete with USP in the teaching of French, of German or something like that.

“We want to be the best university in the region for vocational education because that is our business. What would make you the best vocational education business: if all your programmes were accredited; if all your programmes had industrial internships; if all your programmes are designed around employers need. At the end of the day the acid test is: do our graduates get good jobs?”

Q: Is FNU trying to duplicate some of the things USP is doing?

Healey: “Not remotely. If you map what we offer against USP, we are very distinctively different.

“Where in USP will you go to study veterinary science or agriculture; where in USP will you study medicine. We are not trying to be a shallow imitation of USP. We are a fundamentally different institution; we are a national vocational institution. That’s quite different from USP, which is a more a traditional, research-based university with a big regional footprint.

“I think in some ways you might argue USP is trying to copy us because they’re moving in with Pacific TAFE (Technical and Further Education).

“I’m not suggesting there’s no room in the market for that but they’re drifting into our territory rather than us drifting into theirs. We’ve always been in TAFE or TVET and we have huge infrastructure to support that.”

Q: Are you cooperating with USP on anything?

Healey: Yes. We cooperate on a range of research initiatives. We are very open to information sharing with USP. There are certain things that we are discussing with USP that we might want to do with them for example a medical insurance scheme or something like that. So, I think, by and large, most of us have very good relationships with our counterparts at USP.

“We have over the years exchanged staff – they hired staff from us and we hired from them – so we know a lot about what happens at USP. Most recently, we entered an initiative to upgrade the teaching qualifications of our staff.

“We brokered that with the UK Higher Education Academy and shared it with USP. They spent time with us and later spent time with them. So we did that in tandem. I think all universities have areas where they have common interests and they can cooperate in; they have areas where they’re distinct and some areas where they’re in competition.

“And a bit of competition is not a bad thing; it keeps you on your mettle. But we are not trying to be the same as USP; we are trying to have a very clear mission.”

Q: Is it correct that salaries at FNU are now higher than salaries at USP?

Healey: “That’s an interesting question. We have tried to align our salary structures so that it’s broadly competitive with USP. In some of the areas, our scale is slightly higher than USP now. But USP, for professorial staff, has some special arrangements that are beyond the scales that you see at FNU. In terms of the public scales, ours look higher but in reality there are other salary loadings that are sometimes used at USP.”

Q: Can you elaborate on the new Performance Management System you are implementing?

Healey:  “One of the things we’ve agreed in principle is that we need to decouple the performance management systems for academic staff and support staff because they’re doing fundamentally different jobs.

Whereas, say with the Public Relations Officer, I can sit down and we can agree to a set of objectives for the year, the objectives for an academic don’t change. I mean they are basically just:  do your teaching well; do you research well.

“So what we need to do with the academic staff is we need the performance management system to be very explicit about what we expect of academic staff and ask them to be very clear about what they’ve done in each of these spaces.

“For example, in teaching: I want to know that you’re a good teacher. I want you to show me evidence. Show me your student appraisals; I want to see the results from your course; I want to see some exam scripts you’ve done; I want to see evidence that you’ve led curriculum development; I want to see evidence of innovation in your teaching; I want to see the professional development activities you’ve done in the last year. And I don’t want waffle; I want you to show me evidence that you’re a good teacher.

“In research, I want you to show me the publications you’ve produced; I want to see the conference papers you’ve produced; I want to see the consultancy you’ve done; I want to see the keynote or guest lectures that you’ve done, and if you can’t show me I’m going to mark you down.

“That’s evidence based and it’s transparent. And if I say you won’t get a pay rise this year, you can’t go anywhere with that because you had your opportunity to show me you’re a good teacher. The process is fair, transparent and objective.”

Q: Training and development for your staff?

Healey: “We already have quite a significant training programme. We encourage our people to upgrade their qualifications and undertake training, and we either fund it directly or reimburse it later.

“We probably have a bigger budget in training and development than most private companies – it’s a couple of million dollars a year. However, we have two big challenges. One is: we need to invest more in training our academic staff to improve the quality of our teaching and so there is an initiative underway to setup a university centre for learning and teaching to actually provide support for staff to make them better teachers.

“Many of them have a slightly old-fashioned style of teaching and that’s increasingly difficult to engage students who were brought-up in the digital era if you’re just standing at the front talking to them.

“The second and bigger challenge is upgrading staff qualifications at PhD level. We have a lot of staff who do their masters programme either here within FNU or at one of the universities. But the scope to do PhD programmes locally is relatively limited.

“And so we’re looking at a number of initiatives. We’ve just agreed to increase the monthly allowance for staff who takes leave without pay to go offshore to do PhD from $500 to $1500. And we’ve set up an international office to manage all the international scholarships that are available for our staff to go on training. We already have quite a few of our staff in countries like China, India, and Britain benefitting from these programmes but we are trying to ramp that up through providing a lot of support.”

Q: How are you addressing the brain drain?

Healey: “People have asked me about the quality of doctors produced at FNU – they are first-rate. We have over a 100 doctors who are fellows at the college of medicine in Australia. They’re leading surgeons, very serious people.

“The problem is all but one of those doctors is in Australia. They are not here. I think, along with upgrading qualifications, what we need to do is kind of ensure that we’re building attractive career pathways for staff for when they come back. So when they come back they can still carry on doing their research and work on things of interest to them. Otherwise all we will do is send people offshore to get PhDs, give them a taste of something else, and when they return, they grudgingly work the bond and leave again, and that’s not in anyone’s interests.”

Q: What is the status of your teaching and learning?

Healey: “If you want to improve the quality of learning and teaching, you need to know how well you’re doing and where you see areas that are weak; you need to make changes to intervene and strengthen it.

“So, unless you’ve got some system for assessing the quality of what you’re doing then you have no way to know where the weaknesses are and what needs to be done to improve it.

“So we’ve got an academic portfolio where we looked at every programme in the university and formulated three sets of indicators.

“First one was student demand; second group of indicators include how well the students do when they’re in the course; and the third indicator is student employability. All three things have got to be functioning well before you can say that that’s a good programme.

“And if the indicators show weakness in any of the areas, we asked the respective schools to show us a quality action plan to turn the weakness around. We had moved to semesterisation and restructured all our courses so it was a perfect opportunity to go through and say we need to make various changes as we redesigned the new 15-point credit score courses.

“We designed in the things that are going to improve our performance and designed out the weak areas.”

Q: Do you have anything you want to add?

Healey: “I think the last 12 months have been an interesting journey with the occasional speed bumps along the way; there have been some highs and lows.

“I think what we’ve been doing is really assessing where we are and what we need to do to take us to our 10th anniversary as a university.

“I think when we get beyond 2020 we will be a very different institution: a much more mature and much more of a coherent institution with a lot of the legacies of the past put to bed.

“When I first arrived all I got told was the bad things that happened in 2012 and 2013 and we’re at a point now where we want to put it all behind us and move forward.

“My focus is on the next three or four years and making sure that we’re in a very different place come 2020, than we were in 2010.”

Edited by Rusiate Mataika


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