Lessons learnt, Leinonen resets her agenda

Murdoch University has been through some contentious times recently, seeing its enterprise agreement terminated in 2017 after protracted and occasionally bitter negotiations, and late last year jousting with the National Tertiary Education Union in the Federal Court and the West Australian Supreme Court.

Still, vice-chancellor Eeva Leinonen says she doesn’t regret taking charge of the institution.

“It’s a wonderful opportunity to be part of a transformational journey, I would say,” she muses.

“I’m not a person who looks in the rear-view mirror too much. I obviously learn from lessons that have been presented to us at Murdoch University in the past, but we are very much on a journey now of focusing on our core business, and transforming and building on our strengths.”

Murdoch made history when the Fair Work Commission handed down the ruling that abolished the university’s enterprise agreement, but Leinonen says it had to happen.

“It became apparent after about nine months of negotiations that we were not able to shift from where we were to where we needed to be,” Leinonen notes, adding that the university then chose to “activate the legal mechanism of termination”.

Last year, another enterprise agreement was negotiated, ­approved by 98 per cent of the staff who voted on it, she adds, and ­finally endorsed by the Fair Work Commission with no conditions. Despite the various legal tussles, Leinonen insists she has an ­“entirely respectful” and “very professional” relationship with the union.

So far, she hasn’t commented publicly on the enterprise agreement battle, which she terms a “journey”, but she is now willing to say that when she arrived at the university to pick up the reins as vice-chancellor in April 2016, she found “there was some work to be done in order to get to an agreement that was fit for our future, and we realised we needed some major revisions to the agreement”.

“I’m very proud to say we negotiated an agreement that is modern; it is fair, both for the employee and the employer; and it’s also simple, in so far that we’ve reduced the number of pages greatly, but also the clarity of the courses is such that we all find them easier to interpret and work with,” she says.

Originally from Finland, Leinonen has worked in Australia for more than six years, first arriving at the University of Wollongong, where she worked for three years as deputy vice-chancellor (academic), then moving to Murdoch.

“It is a wonderful country and higher education is a good place to be in Australia, but also my husband is Australian,” she says, adding that his parents were elderly when she and her husband arrived and they wanted to spend some time with them in their ­twilight years.

Leinonen has a daughter and her husband has two children, all now adult and living in Britain, so Christmas holidays are spent in alternate destinations. For now, the vice-chancellor is happy living in Australia and she says that if she were offered an extension to her contract she would consider the proposal very seriously.

“There’s still work to be done and I think we have good momentum,” she says. “We have put in place some of the basics that needed to be attended to, but we also have a very ambitious agenda now.”

With an academic background in linguistics and psychology, Leinonen studied and worked in Britain before coming to Australia, and she says she has a keen understanding of the manifold difficulties faced by international students.

“I was once an international student,” she says. “I went from Finland to study in England. I was a very, very good student in Finland; then I went and started to study in a language other than my mother tongue. It was extremely hard.”

She struggled through her first year at university in Britain and, she says, got the kind of grades she had never had before.

“It was a very sobering experience,” she remembers. “It was a very tough experience. That is what it takes for an international student, going to a different ­culture and using a different ­language.”

Nevertheless, she adds, there has never been any excuse for cheating or plagiarism, whether or not a student comes from another country and has to learn in a different native language. Murdoch provides international students with “academic integrity training”, and embeds some of those lessons into the curriculum as a whole.

“It’s interesting because there are cultural differences as well to learning, and what is acceptable in one culture may not be in other,” Leinonen says. “So it’s very important for us at universities to ­ensure that our international students know what is expected from academic study in an Australian university.”

Murdoch’s international students comprise about 12 per cent of the total student population, and Leinonen is proud that the university’s international student numbers have grown by more than 100 per cent during the past few years. She says there has been substantial growth in both international and domestic ­student numbers, from an admittedly low base, and she expects further increases in the future.

International and domestic students will be affected by the digital revolution felt in universities across Australia.

“It impacts not only how we ­deliver learning — for instance, online or in a blended way — but also what our campuses look like,” Leinonen says. “I don’t think many people are building lecture theatres any more. We’re building learning spaces that are much more flexible.”

She is excited about the potential of online learning, particularly in the context of lifelong learning and skilling, reskilling and upskilling the workforce.

Murdoch is starting to scope a flexible learning framework for postgraduate study that would include strong elements of online delivery. Students looking at this course could “pick and mix” their subjects, she says, to tailor their courses to their career ­requirements.

Regardless of a shift elsewhere to introduce teaching-only positions, Leinonen is a firm believer in the importance of the connection between research and teaching.

“I do believe there is a synergy between high-quality research and high-quality teaching, in so far that students are taught by experts in their fields,” she says, adding that Murdoch is establishing an Australian national phenome centre that will be a centre for research in precision medicine and the university has attracted world leaders in the field to lead that centre.

She says universities have a mandate to serve society, and one aspect of that is through translational research that can provide benefits for local, national and international communities.

“At Murdoch University we are not carrying out our high-quality research to climb up the rankings,” Leinonen says. “We were quite clear in our strategic plan that we were carrying out ­research for the purpose of making a difference and looking at the big challenges there are in the world and be part of some of those solutions.”