Posted 16/05/2023 by: Professor David Lloyd

There's a really important bit in Avengers: Infinity War when Dr Stephen Strange astrally projects himself into 14,000,605 alternate futures to see how events will play out in each case - and determines that in only one of those possible futures will the heroes prevail, based on the decisions they are making in the present.

Wouldn't that be a useful talent? Exploring the infinite avenues of possibility and guiding your choices accordingly. In the absence of a time stone, flux capacitor or nitrotrinadium, we don't have the luxury of sliding along the timelines of the multiverse and can really only speculate through that most useful of questions, what if?

What if there wasn’t a State Government Policy to advance university amalgamations in South Australia?

What if there wasn’t a national Accord dialogue underway to examine higher education in Australia?

What if there hadn’t been a global pandemic which demonstrated the fragility of Australian university funding mechanisms?

What if the demography of South Australia could support three globally competitive universities of scale?

What if there was true differentiation and specialisation across the university sector?

What if there was a sustainable and stable funding base which enabled universities to thrive and flourish, to act autonomously as institutions of old, unfettered and without obligation to anyone other than their own cloistered community and goals?

So many avenues of possibility. All we can do is navigate them, to the best of our ability.

The phrase ‘we are where we are’ is sometimes positioned as inherently defeatist or linked to resignation to a (pre)determined fate – but it’s not, it’s elegantly pragmatic. Knowing where you are allows you to plot your course to where you want to be, if where you are isn’t that place.

Where I believe we are now, is on a cusp. We are approaching a branch point in UniSA’s timeline.

On one arm of the branch, a 32-year-old challenger university of enterprise will continue its ongoing mission, graduating 7000 or so students per year with great graduate qualities and employment prospects, thinking globally and acting locally to great effect. If it runs a conservative 3% safety margin on its $750 million operating turnover, it should yield around $22 million per annum, in the good times, to invest in support of its goals in teaching, research and engagement.

On the other arm of the branch, a new South Australian university for the future will begin its mission, to manifest itself as Australia’s new for-purpose university. That university aspires to be a leading contemporary comprehensive university of global standing. It plans to dedicate itself to ensuring the prosperity, well-being and cohesion of society by addressing educational inequality through its actions and through the success and impact of its students, staff and alumni. Partnered with the communities it serves, that institution will conduct outstanding future-making research of scale and focus. That university would be Australia’s largest domestic educator, well placed to change Australia for good, and will graduate around 13,000 or so students per year, with great graduate qualities and employment prospects. If it runs a conservative 3% safety margin on its $1.8 billion operating turnover, it should yield around $54 million per annum, in the good times, to invest in support of its goals in teaching, research and engagement.

Both futures exist in potentia right now. Both have associated potential risks and rewards – and impact on South Australian society for the future.  One is the continuity of a proven endeavour, the other the undertaking of the new. Which course is for the better? What are the relative merits of one branch over another?

Dr Strange is not here to play out the future for us, and so, we can only model, and project and assume, but on an evidenced basis and through a balanced risk framework informed by trend and business awareness. The odds are significantly better than 1 in 14,000,605 – but the stakes are still high. In the heel of the hunt, a choice must be made, and made in the interests of securing not just better, but the best possible outcome – for UniSA, for Adelaide, for South Australia and the nation.

Our University Council will determine which arm of the branch, which possible future, we will take at the end of June. We are about 4 weeks out from locking the contents of the feasibility study which will inform and underpin that determination. My goal, and the goal of all involved, is to furnish sufficient and objective information and data to bestow an ability to look forward to the possible outcomes – and so best choose which course to chart.

Sentiment is laudable, but it cannot be a material input to informed, objective, reasoned and balanced decision making. Consensus is admirable, but in determinative choice making where there is a binary outcome, not everyone can or will be happy with the outcome. That’s the way of things. Consider, weigh, interrogate, choose.

I read an interesting article recently [1] which quoted Assoc Prof Kate Barasz, from Esade Business School in Barcelona. Kate’s a consumer marketing specialist and has published extensively on decision making. In the article, she was quoted as saying ‘…people are averse to making (objectively and subjectively) difficult choices because they don’t want the stress of weighing all the options or the responsibility of dealing with the eventual outcome — both, good and bad.’ That’s something we all know, and there is evidence to support the assertion. Decision avoidance derives from a rational-emotional model of the factors that predispose humans to do nothing [2]. But inevitably, someone must choose. To quote a well known and surprisingly contemporary (by my standards) popular culture figure – this is the way [3].

Those charged with determining what is in the best interests of an institution carry responsibility and accountability for their decisions. They do what they do so that all of us can get on and do what we do. That is part and parcel of the position held. The burden of choice. As Prufrock did, they may well wonder, do I dare disturb the universe?

In a minute there is time for decisions and revisions which a minute will reverse.

Beyond that point in time, along either branch, there is of course, a future. A future with an abundance of time for co-creation and invention and working together to craft the best outcomes.

Momentous decisions are, ironically, about looking beyond the moment. To the future.

To what if.


[2] Anderson, Christopher J., The Psychology of Doing Nothing: Forms of Decision Avoidance Result from Reason and Emotion. Psychological Bulletin, Vol. 129, pp. 139-167, 2003

[3] I can bring you in warm, or I can bring you in cold. What did you expect – another literature reference? And did you figure out all three time travel references earlier? Ooh, and watch out, there’s an unreferenced T.S. Eliot quote coming up too – also on the subject of time. Did you know he also once said, “We shall not cease from exploration, and the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time”? I digress...

Professor David Lloyd

Through The Big Picture, I hope that our whole community gains a greater and current appreciation of what is going on, how it fits together and how our activities connect and reinforce each other at a whole of enterprise level.


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