Dispatch from #APAC2017: Higher Ed’s Uncertain Future

The CASE Asia-Pacific Advancement Conference is underway. Our Currents interim editor in chief Toni Coleman sent this report from Singapore.

CASE Asia-Pacific kicked off its 10th annual advancement conference on Wednesday, April 26, by commemorating its growth during the past decade and hosting a debate on whether institutions are ready for the challenges of the next 10 years.

Before a record crowd—more than 400 people from 23 countries gathered at the Grand Hyatt in Singapore—Belinda Robinson, chief executive of Universities Australia; Ian Edwards, a partner at the More Partnership consultancy; and Helen Nicholson, deputy vice-chancellor of external engagement at New Zealand’s University of Otago, argued that the lessons learned since CASE opened its Asia-Pacific office have adequately prepared advancement leaders to advance education over the next 10 years.

Arguing against the proposition were Bernard Toh, director of the alumni relations office at National University of Singapore; Teresa Flannery, vice president of communications at American University in Washington, D.C.; and Philip Sohmen, co-founder and deputy chairman of China’s YK Pao School. CASE President and CEO Sue Cunningham moderated the debate.

Using history as a guide, Robinson expressed confidence that advancement professionals will quickly adapt to change by building on the industry’s successes. The U.S., she noted, developed its culture of philanthropy over 400 years, but other regions from Europe to Asia are doing the same in a much shorter period of time. “We look anywhere for best ideas, adapting these as we go and applying them in new ways.”

The opposition warned against underestimating the unprecedented change on the horizon and people’s ability to quickly adapt. People and institutions have shown themselves to be unprepared for the impact of the Brexit vote, the election of a reality TV star to the U.S. presidency, the movement to close borders and technological disruptions.

“Do we need additional evidence that the next decade will be a wild ride?” asked Flannery.

“We’ve lived through uncertain times before,” countered Nicholson. “We can’t predict what will happen, but we can be prepared. What we know about people is there’s an ability to adapt. Adaptability is key in preparing us for the future. If you’re not prepared or getting ready for the future, why are 430 of us here?”

Change is happening quickly, but educational institutions are notorious for adopting change at a glacial pace, Sohmen said. “We’re only beginning to grasp the challenges of the next 10 years, let alone talk about solutions,” he added. In addition to the unpredictable global political climate, institutions are facing fiscal pressures as governments cut educational funding and families push back against rising tuition/fees and the resultant student loans.

Advancement has to fill ever-increasing financial gaps, but with potentially diminishing returns for those efforts. “If we’re prepared, why are we all here?” Sohmen asked. “We’re here because there’s more work to be done. Are we ready right now? No, we are not.”

Most people agreed. The pre-debate poll showed a divided crowd, but by the end of the debate, the opposition had persuaded 72 percent of the crowd that advancement has its work cut out for it.

To CASE President Sue Cunningham, the opposition team may have won the argument that institutions are not ready for change but it successfully made the case for advancement professionals to turn to CASE for the resources they need to prepare for horizon challenges.

Toni Coleman is interim editor in chief of Currents magazine at CASE.

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