Empty buildings, sunk costs

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As any of my friends will attest, I have argued for years for the structural separation of educational assets from delivery in education.

For my long-suffering friends who are not in tertiary education, I apologise. They have heard me bang on for years about how there are all these buildings which various Governments-of-the-day have paid for (that’s us, folks). These buildings are for the exclusive use of various government edifices, whether they be universities, TAFEs, high schools or agricultural colleges.

There are loads of these things. From Australia’s largest TAFE – Sydney Institute run by the formidable David Riordan to the Yanco Agricultural Institute in Yanco, NSW – run by the Dept. of Primary Industries (not Education – how about that?!).

All these facilities, paid for by you and I, our forebears…and with all that debt, probably my grandkids too.

These are educational assets. The cost is sunk into these buildings and facilities. Some of them are severely run-down and unloved.

Some of them are state-of-the-art and have the latest whirligigs such as truck dynamometers and nursing labs. All expensive.

And I argue, mostly underutilised.

Why do I say that? Well, for a start, most public institutions work on a two semester system. In the instance of TAFE, for example, they have long, luxurious breaks including a nice one from mid December until the beginning of February.

A number of privately run institutions have 4-6 weeks off per year. Not per break. Per year.

At ACNT, we used to run our assets like a hotel or an airline. That meant a yield management model where I had a timetable coordinator who was full-time looking for opportunities to run our rooms. We had night classes four nights per week with the building nearly full most nights. We looked at variables such as lift loading and unloading times, staggered lunch hours, summer classes, short courses and weekend workshops.

And when that wasn’t enough, we invited third-party organisations to use our facilities for their own training, corporate events, professional networking meetings etc.

Because we had a business-eye-view on how an asset should be run, we created additional educational opportunities for students, additional work for staff and had lower security worries. Around our campus in Sydney, cafes and shops stayed open later to cater for our students – building the night-time economy for our friends in the small businesses around us.

Our student timetable became the hiring chart for cafes. How about that?

So, back to the underutilised assets. Why does TAFE own its own buildings and get exclusive use of them? Or universities? Or high schools?

These assets are lazy.

And these are OUR assets. We paid for them and built them to be used to educate, train, inform; build our economy; build our businesses and quality of life.

We congregate in them when they’re open. And they are host to vandals and delinquents when they’re not.

So, back to the question. Why the exclusive use of these organisations? A monopoly, if you will.

An educational organisation is really a virtual thing – as the big shift towards online learning is showing us all.

It’s branding (UNSW or Central College Online). It’s intellectual property (curriculum, course notes, delivery knowhow). It’s people – lots of people – it’s teachers, management, administration, IT, accounting staff, marketing.

But, is it buildings and facilities?

Take a look at my list above and you’ll notice one thing. All those items are portable.

You can put any or all of that just about anywhere. You can move teachers around – from Sydney to Singapore. Or put them online 24/7 so they’re in your bedroom (so to speak).

Administration could be about anywhere. Same with accounts. Same with management.

So, what’s left? The facilities.

So if you can teach anywhere, or nowhere I argue that you can separate the facilities away from the institution – structural separation.

That means that, TAFE would be an “authorised user” of TAFE facilities, based on their need. And when they’re not being used (and I mean REALLY used, as opposed to having rooms blocked out on a timetable) then they become available for other authorised providers. These would often be private colleges, but could also be community events.

This model is called “common user facilities” and has just recently been adopted by the Queensland Government.

Under this model, the government-owned facilities would be managed by an arm of government that is used to managing facilities.

And the teachers get on and teach.

With incentive now to make the facilities available to more authorised users, these assets could be used, say 50% more often. Then there is incentive to upkeep them, re-invest in them. Oh, by the way, as a community we just got 50% more education being delivered at no additional cost to government.

This is a common-sense approach to the utilisation of a community resource. Time will tell if common-sense prevails in other jurisdictions.

Author Bio:Danny Bielik is the CEO of Central College Online, Australia. Danny presents the weekly 2GB Courses and Careers Show every Thursday evening. Listen live on 873 2GB or 2gb.com or listen to the podcast on the 2GB website or iTunes. This post was originally published here

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