Thank you to everyone for all your tremendous efforts and successes in 2020. Student satisfaction was high, despite obviously difficult circumstances. We have been forced to learn new approaches and technologies. Necessity being the mother of invention, hopefully we have invented some approaches that will serve well into the future.
We ended the year on a financially sound basis. While we expect the worst financial impacts to come in 2021 due to loss of commencing international students, our performance this year should give us great confidence for the long term. Of course, our future financial strength will not just happen of its own accord. It requires continuing to develop a curriculum that serves both economics specialists and the much larger body of students who take economic units electives. We have made a lot of progress on this front over the past few years, and this will be an ongoing project. I ask that everyone think about curriculum opportunities, based both on your own reflections but also on experiences or observations from other universities.
We will have an external review in the latter part of 2021. This is an opportunity for us to reflect systematically as a department on our strategies to ensure a brilliant future. Each of us will be asked to contribute thoughtfully to our self-review, both individually and in small groups. We will start that process early next year, but it's worth each of us thinking about opportunities in advance, so they have time to develop. I believe we have done very well indeed over the past decade due to a spirit of innovation and a commitment to quality. We can tell that story effectively in a review, but the real point of a review is how to do even better in the future. That will of course require even more innovation, and that is the job of all of us.
Wishing you all the best for the upcoming holidays!
Professor Michael Ward
It has been a challenging year to say the least, and there are challenges yet to come. We have met the adversity with great professionalism, and I remain convinced our medium to long-term outlook is promising.
As you will know, the university has experienced a very significant drop in students and revenue; even further drops are currently forecast for 2021. Therefore, the university is engaged in a Voluntary Separation Package process that is intended to reduce continuing academic positions by over 100 and professional staff positions by over 150 across the university. Unfortunately, two academic positions within the Economics department will likely be lost through this process. A newsletter is of course not the place for details, but I think it appropriate to acknowledge here these difficult circumstances will impact valued colleagues very personally.
You are likely wondering then why I am optimistic about our prospects in a COVID-normal or hopefully a post-COVID future. From a narrow business perspective, our fundamentals were very strong before COVID.
For example, the Department's budgeted direct expenses (mostly salaries) normally consume only about 33 per cent of our revenues. Even this year, I believe that figure is less than 40 per cent. We are still a very financially successful unit individually, as is the Business School, even after one accounts for our fair share of central support charges, and even in this crisis year. While we of course have to wear our share of the current crisis, our business model will weather it.
More importantly, I'm optimistic because of the fantastic people we have. A university, a department, is the people. Having great buildings, labs, offices, campus, and so-on would be for nothing without great people. As I've started preparing for our external review in 2021, I've been struck by what a great story we have to tell about the journey we've been on.
Over the last decade, I believe we have probably had one of the best trajectories in the world, in research excellence, teaching innovation, curriculum design, and staff recruiting. That simply doesn't happen without tremendous dedication by great colleagues each doing their part. So, again the fundamentals are strong where they matter most.
As with everywhere else in the world, we will be severely challenged until the COVID crisis has passed. Still, I remain convinced that we will continue to thrive post-COVID, because of the combination of strong business fundamentals and our great colleagues.
Professor Michael Ward
In a difficult time, our colleagues have shown tremendous professionalism and dedication to students. Thanks to each of you. I would also like to specifically acknowledge the leadership of Vinod, Simon, and Sue. Unfortunately, the difficult times are not yet past. There will still be at least partially online teaching. There will still be a tight budget. But these difficulties will eventually pass. We can emerge as an even better department, as we are forced to try new ways and learn through trial and the occasional error. Until then, please be especially supportive of colleagues and students, as all are going through stressful times. If anybody is having difficulty coping, please reach out to me, a trusted colleague, or the Employee Assistance Program on 1300 360 364.
You would have seen Matt Leister's email to the department from earlier in the year that he has left Australia and academia for family reasons. Matt has been a wonderful colleague and a good friend to so many of us; we have offered him an adjunct position to formalise our on-going ties. Nathan Lane is also departing soon, having recently accepted a lectureship at Oxford. Best wishes to Nathan and congratulations on a great opportunity. He will be missed, and I am sure his investments in the SodaLabs initiative will have lasting impact here. Moving the other direction, Mladen Adamovic has commenced as a research fellow working with Andreas on diversity and inclusion; we look forward to welcoming him properly once we are back on campus. We are expecting several fantastic new colleagues to arrive in the first half of next year: Stefanie Fischer, Kaveh Majlesi, Krisztina Orban, and Corey White. We are also still hoping for several other research fellows to commence, once border and visa issues from the pandemic are resolved.
In order to provide a secure financial footing for the department, we have been working hard at developing new business. It will take some space to give a sense of much of the activity, as it represents a huge effort by so many colleagues that is fundamentally important to the future of our department. Specific new units that were launched this year or are planned for next year include Economics for Entrepreneurs (George), Cost Benefit Analysis (George), Labour Economics (Anu), Political Economy (Weijia), Energy Economics (Gordon), Economic Growth (Sascha), European Economy (Marco), Chinese Economy and Global Business (He-Ling and Kris), Financial Decision Making (Kaveh), Network Economics (Yves and Arthur), Introduction to Quantitative Methods (Birendra), Sustainability Economics (Corey). We are also co-designing a number of cross-department integrating units within the Faculty to be offered in future. All of these are carefully targeted to meet specific education and business objectives, and we have been able to introduce them without significantly increasing teaching loads as a result of growth in the department. At the same time, we have retired several defunct or very small classes, and we will continue to review which classes make sense in the new environment.
This year, we have also launched the Politics Philosophy and Economics (PPE) bachelor degree, joint with Arts, with Birendra as course director. Though starting small, we anticipate that it will eventually have an intake of 70-100 students per year, with additional teaching load being about one unit (1/3 of each of 4 new co-taught units). Within the PPE, students have an option to specialise in economics, which will provide similar economics exposure as a bachelor of economics.
Most of you will have seen the redesign of the masters program, creating a new Master of Economics stream which replaces the old Master of Business Economics. Thanks to Mita, Paul and Vinod for their leadership on this. With this new design and positioning as a professional-focused degree, we hope to be able to tap into future growth opportunities both domestically and internationally. Students will be able to specialise in Business Economics, Policy Economics, Development Economics, Econometrics plus Economics, or build their own specialisation. Core to the redesign will be a year-long case-study based research and consulting skills class, which will provide a cohort experience where students across the specialisations can network. We are seeking permission to make some targeted investments in the masters program in hopes of significantly increasing student numbers by providing a great experience overall and building a reputation of workforce-ready professional training. There is also a possibility being explored by Paul of offering a graduate diploma version of the econometrics plus economics stream. I would like to acknowledge the contributions by our colleagues in CDES at developing several new units for the Development Economics specialisation.
The new unit on the Chinese Economy has opened the door to some new markets as well. This unit has been designed to be a very high-quality on-line experience, supplemented by some live workshops or tutorials. The model is of high initial investment but low marginal cost, offered at all campuses in most teaching periods. It turns out that this meshes nicely with a university-wide initiative for online-oriented masters. As an initial foray into this space, we have proposed offering a specialisation in International Business Economics into an online masters program in Business Management being designed by the Faculty. This will involve designing all-online versions of International Economics, Business in Asia, and Economics (ECF5953) to complement the new Chinese Economy unit The Faculty is also open to packaging these four units in their live formats both as a standalone graduate certificate and as a specialisation in an existing face to face business masters The bottom line is that with some hard upfront work, we may be able to leverage these existing investments to attract many more students.
In addition, we must be increasingly strategic from a business perspective about which units to offer and when to offer them. We must protect and build our student numbers, and do that efficiently with the resources we have. We will need to offer more in winter and summer teaching periods. We likely should offer some targeted units in two semesters, especially in units that are foundations for further study. We need to look at whether some of the very small units should be retained, or replaced with more cost-effective offerings. It is the nature of the times that some will be asked to do a bit more, or to do things a bit differently, than in the recent past. However, we will do this in a way that still protects generous time for research and service, which has been so important to the success of our department.