Chapter 1: Statement of purpose

  1. Lessons from history
  2. Perceptions of the University
  3. Articulating a strategic purpose

1. Lessons from history

The foundation of the University of Sydney in 1850 was an expression of the aspiration of Australian colonists for a civil society based on merit and enterprise. As one of the founding fathers of the University, WC Wentworth, argued, this would be an institution open to all:

“In later years I hope the institution we now contemplate will afford a sphere of instruction, not for the colony alone, but for the whole family of men. It will be the fountain of knowledge at whose springs all might drink, be they Christian, Mahomedan, Jew, or Heathen. Its gates should be open to all, whether they are disciples of Moses, of Jesus, of Mahomed, of Vishnu, or of Buddha.”

(Speech to the NSW Legislative Council, 1849)

Of course, this claimed egalitarianism did not extend to Australia’s first peoples, but it did mark the University as distinctive within the British tradition. It was secular and open on the basis of merit, as measured through public examination, rather than on religious or property tests, as was common elsewhere. Churches could establish residential colleges for students but these were entirely independent of the University and played no role in formal instruction or examination. In essence this became the basis for the Australian higher education system for the next 130 years, creating a system that took much from the British tradition, yet put in place principles that were distinctively Australian.

To give expression to these aspirations, the early supporters of the University devoted considerable energy to constructing the essential pillars for this vision: an extensive scholarship system so that young men (and from 1881 young women) of academic merit were able to enrol (and in the first decade of the University a third of the students received full scholarships and the remainder had subsidised fees); and a curriculum that would ensure that those students achieved their potential. In matters of curriculum the founding professors, such as the Rev. Dr John Woolley, were firm in their belief that the role of the University was to inculcate the capacity to be active, virtuous and enterprising citizens. Thus it was essential that all students be instructed in the liberal and general disciplines of Western civilisation – an education that cultivated critical thinking and reflection – and for Woolley, in particular, this meant the classics, mathematics and the natural sciences. Unlike the University of Melbourne where the ideal of professional education was embodied in the foundation of the institution, Sydney proclaimed the virtues of a liberal curriculum. While Woolley saw a place for the later introduction of studies that would equip students for particular professions, a foundation in the humanities and sciences was for Woolley, and the other early professors, critical for the future of the colony.

Over the next 150 years, these founding principles set the pattern for the evolution of the University. We retained a strong commitment to a liberal tradition of arts and sciences, although what fitted into that tradition expanded dramatically over the years. Science became a separate faculty in 1882; History and English were added in the 1890s; the University became the first in Australia to establish a chair in oriental studies (1918) and a department of anthropology (1923); but was also one of the last to have a department of sociology (1990). In the late 1990s new disciplines such as media studies, gender studies and cultural studies were added. Similarly, in the natural sciences, fields such as computer science, nutrition and dietetics, and nanoscience, have emerged over the last few decades, building upon the core traditions of mathematics, physics, chemistry and biology. In other words, the University has retained a commitment to being a custodian of the great knowledge traditions while simultaneously staying at the cutting edge through the adoption of new disciplines and methodologies. Currently the University of Sydney has over 50 humanities, social science and science disciplines, the most diverse range of such offerings in the country. In all the University offers education in over 210 fields, of which more than 140 are offered at the doctoral level, again the most diverse range in the country.

Equally important, as Woolley foresaw, professional faculties eventually began to be established (see Appendix 2). Medicine was the first, in 1883, although it had been an examination but not teaching faculty from 1856. Law became a faculty in 1890, largely through the generosity of the Challis bequest, although like Medicine it had offered examinations but no classes since 1855. The great expansion in professional faculties occurred in two waves – the 1920s and the 1990s – and the reasons for these periods of expansion bear closer scrutiny.

In the 1920s Agriculture, Architecture, Dentistry, Economics, Engineering and Veterinary Science became separate faculties (although some disciplines such as agriculture, engineering and veterinary science had been in Science earlier). There were two major factors propelling the founding of these faculties. First, governments and professions were agitating for the University to deliver training in these areas to meet perceived labour force needs (more engineers and agricultural scientists, for example, to sustain key industries and economic growth). Second, given the financial challenges of such expansion, the University in large part responded to significant donations to establish new faculties. For example, the expansion in Engineering was largely supported by a bequest from Peter Nicol Russell, and the very substantial bequest from Samuel McCaughey was instrumental in supporting Agriculture and Dentistry (as well as positions in Arts and Science).

The second great wave of expansion came in the late 1980s as a consequence of the Dawkins reforms, and the creation of a unified national system of higher education. An integral part of this reform process was the transformation of former Colleges of Advanced Education into new universities, and the amalgamation of many other independent institutions of higher education into already established universities. The University of Sydney, like other universities, was under some pressure from the federal government to take smaller institutions under its wing. In 1990 the University agreed to take Sydney College of the Arts, Sydney Conservatorium of Music, Sydney Institute of Education, the Institute of Nursing Studies at Sydney College of Advanced Education, and Cumberland College of Health Sciences. The early years of amalgamation were ones of profound culture shock on both sides. That these new faculties (Sydney Institute of Education, however, was absorbed into the existing Faculty of Education) have become important parts of the University is testament to the energy and enterprise of many staff.

There have been other developments in the faculty structure. Education became a separate faculty in 1986, having been a department in Arts for many years. Similarly Pharmacy was established, after much lobbying from the profession, as a separate faculty in 2000 (it had previously been a department in Science and, before 1933, in Medicine).

This rich history of expansion in the number of faculties, be they outgrowths from established faculties, newly created, or the result of amalgamations, tells us something fundamental about the character of the contemporary institutional structure of the University of Sydney. That structure has not developed as a consequence of some carefully crafted plan. On the contrary, it has grown in fits and starts, often as a result of serendipity, the happenstance of bequests and donations, the consequence of persuasive lobbying from particular professions, or in response to changing political and economic imperatives.

This history seems, on the whole, to indicate three things about the University. First, it indicates that, at its foundation, the University was marked by a radical commitment to social transformation, to building a new, and more meritocratic society in New South Wales. This tradition has survived as a part of the self-conception of the University, even at times when we have been criticised for being apparently ‘elitist’ and ‘establishment’. Second, and notwithstanding this commitment to social transformation, our history reveals a foundational commitment to ‘education’ in its broadest sense, and not merely to professional or other ‘training’. Again, this is a tradition that is important to the continuing self-conception of the University, even as our range of professional offerings has grown so that most of our faculties now offer some type of professional education. Third, our history shows that the organisation of the University, and the range of our offerings, seems to have emerged more by accretion than design. Bits and pieces over the years have come together, for a variety of reasons, to create the University’s present form and content. Our University has not evolved from a considered strategy and plan but more commonly from accident and circumstance. It exhibits the features of its making: diversity, difference and, in some respects, a lack of coherence. In its present form the University offers a staggering array of disciplines and professional studies. A critical question informing the current strategic planning process is whether such diversity is either desirable or sustainable.

In light of this history, we would argue that it is essential for the University to engage in more critical reflection on its core mission. To understand what we are requires some consideration of what our communities think we should be.

2. Perceptions of the University

One of the inspiring outcomes of the extensive interviews and surveys undertaken as part of the strategic planning process and the earlier Brand Project (involving around 10,000 people in all) was the warmth of feeling for the University and the desire for its future wellbeing. Staff, students, alumni, employers and friends expressed overwhelming affection, admiration and appreciation for the University. Many commented on the extraordinary research contribution of the University and equally the inspiring teachers, challenging courses, brilliant supervision, exciting and lively learning environment, and the quality of the extracurricular student experience provided by the University and student organisations.

This affection, however, was tempered by informed criticism. In particular, there was a concern that we were moving away from what many thought to be the distinctive Sydney mission: that of combining academic excellence with a deep commitment to social transformation. In ways that reflected the history outlined in the preceding section, many felt that our tradition was one of taking ideas seriously, not only in themselves, but because of the difference that they could make in the wider community. They expressed concern, however, that we had lost a sense of the distinctiveness of this mission and had become complacent. Most felt that the University was rather undifferentiated from the rest of the ‘Group of Eight’ research universities and that Sydney really lacked a declared or demonstrable strategic intent. These impressions were exacerbated by the ways the University of Sydney tried to represent itself. Interviewees commented frequently that Sydney seemed more interested in its ‘heritage’, than in being contemporary, engaged and relevant. The University’s communities, through these interviews and surveys, were urging the University to embrace the tradition of engaged and purposeful intellectual pursuit and critical enquiry that they saw as the heart of our historic mission. To that end the University has embraced a new brand expression aimed at reinforcing its quality of ‘active minds’ and the fruits of this exercise will be rolled out over the next 18 months.

A new brand expression, however, will not allay some of the fundamental concerns outlined in these surveys and interviews. The problems are deeper. Many external constituencies cite how difficult it is to do business with the University. They complain that there appear to be a bewildering array of points of entry to undertake collaboration with staff. They are bedevilled by procedures and institutional structures that reflect the complexity of the institution rather than provide a way through it. Students face a confusing multiplicity of information, enrolment and candidature counters, policies and staff, all doing different things. Staff feel stifled by bureaucratic processes. For many the University of Sydney seems large, all encompassing but impenetrable, a place where something is always happening but nothing ever quite gets done. This is overly harsh, and underestimates the extraordinary range of contributions of staff and students to the public good and the sheer quality of their work. Nonetheless, it is the case that for many, particularly people outside the institution wanting to collaborate with us, we appear overly complex if not opaque. And when good outcomes occur, as they frequently do, for many that appears to be in spite of the systems we have in place not because of them.

Underpinning all this is a pervasive sense that the University of Sydney is merely the sum of its various parts, albeit in many instances brilliant parts, not a University that strategically leverages those parts to achieve something greater. If the University is to build on all it has, it needs greater strategic direction. The surveys and interviews make that clear. But which way should we go? How might we give practical form to a more coherent identity?

3. Articulating a strategic purpose

The University of Sydney has, of course, always been engaged in defining and redefining its mission, ever since the moment of its foundation. As it has grown, however, that process has become more challenging. For example, the most recent attempt to establish a mission, in the last University strategic plan, focused on improving our performance across the board. Indeed the aim was for every part of the University to become the leading faculty in the country in their area, in the top five in the region, and the top 40 in the world (‘1:5:40’). This was an admirable aspiration and one that cleverly recognised that in an increasingly international educational environment driven by league tables, an improved ranking would undoubtedly have concrete financial benefits for the institution. It was also a mission that unleashed considerable entrepreneurial energy as the various parts of the University focused on improving their research and teaching ranking. What remained undone in this approach, however, was the work of critical reflection on what was distinctive about the University, and what its primary concerns should be.

Rankings cannot be the guiding principle for a university’s mission. They might be an expression of how well an institution achieves its mission but, given the flaws in ranking systems, to be captive to them is potentially to sacrifice the essential identity of the institution. The difficulty of allowing rankings to determine our mission can be seen in the fact that, by doing nothing, undertaking no improvement in any form, the University could move from 37 in the Times Higher Education-QS rankings to notionally as high as 27, under some simplistic assumptions, merely by closing down eight of our faculties. But would that make us a better university? The critical issue is to define a relevant core mission and to use that as the measure for deciding the capacity of the parts to contribute to the whole.

To be relevant, any mission requires some assessment of the place of the University in a wider framework. There is no doubt that by virtue of its history and how it has evolved in the context of national and international higher education, the University of Sydney sits in a particular place in the higher education ‘market’. There is a range of possible indicators, which clearly situate the University. For example it is a research-intensive university, one of the leading institutions in the country for competitive research grant income (see Appendix 3), with a wide variety of course offerings that attract some of the brightest students in the country (see Appendix 4). Moreover, retention and progression rates at Sydney are higher than the Australian average, pointing to both the quality of the students and the University’s learning environment. This indicates clearly that the University of Sydney is one of Australia’s leading research and teaching universities, offering world-class teaching, research and research training to Australian and international students.

Moreover, the University of Sydney offers some disciplines and programs rarely offered in other institutions in Australia, notably ancient Greek, Sanskrit, modern Greek and near eastern archaeology. In addition, it is one of a select few institutions offering training in such professions as dentistry, medical imaging and agriculture. Sydney is not unique with respect to these disciplines, but it is one of a small group of providers and in the Australian context offers the broadest range of disciplines of any university in the country. In its comprehensiveness it is greatly enhancing educational opportunities for students, and meeting national and international needs for training in these fields. Of course this returns us to a dilemma highlighted earlier: that of whether there is a tension between the University’s aspirations to research and teaching excellence and the broad range of disciplines it offers. Has the University lost focus by spreading its operations across such a wide array of areas? But if we are to concentrate our resources on our core concerns how do we determine what those concerns should be?

Equally important is the fact that the federal government is currently attempting to encourage greater diversity and specialisation in the higher education system. Given the population and resource base of Australia there is widespread recognition that Australia cannot support 39 universities of equal size, quality, mission, research intensity and spread of discipline. If the University of Sydney is to carve out a distinctive place within this system it needs a clearer sense of what it is and what it should do.

To this end the Vice-Chancellor proposed, in response to his perception of the values and traditions of the University, a statement of strategic purpose to guide this process from its outset. In essence that statement has received warm support during our period of consultation, though concerns were expressed about some aspects of its framing. Re-expressed to meet those concerns, the statement is:

We aim to create and sustain a university in which, for the benefit of both Australia and the wider world, the brightest researchers and the most promising students, whatever their social or cultural background, can thrive and realise their full potential.

At first glance this statement of purpose may seem overly generic. On closer inspection, however, it sets a clear direction for the University. It has the capacity to act as a litmus test for whether much that we currently do, or might consider doing, appropriately fits within our portfolio of activities. Our understanding of the strategic purpose will more fully emerge as it gives shape to the proposals in this Green Paper. However, four key points of explication should be made at this point.

First, the statement of purpose positions the University as a quality research institution, of both national and international significance, a home to the brightest researchers. This entails an aspiration for the work of our academic staff. In our understanding of research, we eschew distinctions such as that between ‘fundamental’ and ‘applied’ research as outdated. Indeed we believe that the research of the University should be balanced between work the focus of which is closer to theory, and work the focus of which is closer to praxis. But wherever it falls upon that spectrum, we understand research to be that which produces a significant and original advance in knowledge or understanding. The quality of the research to which the University aspires is that which is internationally competitive as the output of a researcher working in the relevant field at the relevant stage of their career. This distinguishes our work from, for example, routine testing in the natural or medical sciences, or the rehearsal of known arguments in the social sciences or humanities. It is also true to the vision of the University’s work that Woolley proposed in the 1850s.

Second, the statement of purpose also implies a particular type of educational experience for the most promising students. This is an educational experience that brings them into contact with the brightest researchers, and trains them in the type of critical thinking that leads to significant and original advances in knowledge and understanding. It is also an education that ‘maximises their potential’ across the whole range of their abilities by developing their generic skills, not least in leadership, both inside and outside the classroom. This understanding of our mission distinguishes our work from, for example, the mere training of work-ready technicians with skills in a particular professional field. We are hoping to produce the graduates who will advance the work of, sometimes transform, whatever field of endeavour they eventually undertake. This is as true for our professional courses as it is for our more generalist ones.

Third, the statement of purpose assumes that the particular type of social contribution that we have to make is that which can only be made by the brightest researchers and most promising students. This is an important point. The University has a proud tradition of social engagement of many different types in many different fields. Such a tradition of social engagement is no less than might be expected of an institution the history of which is grounded in a commitment to social transformation. Yet some of that activity has only a marginal link with our core purposes in teaching and research. It is implicit in the statement of purpose that, before undertaking any particular type of activity outside teaching and research, the question must be asked whether doing so creates new opportunities for our students and researchers as they engage in their fundamental work. The largest contribution that an institution such as Sydney can make to Australia and the wider world is twofold. It is the development of significant and original contributions to knowledge and understanding, particularly in areas of pressing social concern, and to seeing those contributions disseminated and influencing practice in the community more broadly. It is also providing a cohort of students well trained in critical thinking and other generic skills.

Fourth, the statement of purpose suggests that the University should be looking for the greatest talent wherever it is to be found. This has at least two important consequences. First, the University should be agnostic regarding the nationalities of its researchers and students. It should therefore, in as much as it is possible, avoid setting ‘Platonic’ ratios of international to domestic students. It should also avoid setting ‘Platonic’ ratios of postgraduate to undergraduate students. Instead, as we shall outline in the following chapters, it should allow the mix of students to be determined by disciplinary communities in the University using as their primary criterion the availability of very able students, within the limits allowed by their need to guarantee a mix of different types of student to ensure financial viability. Second, as regards students, the statement of purpose is inclusivist in its assessment of intellectual ability, focusing on their promise at the point of entry, and not merely on the track record of performance they have at that particular moment. This is important if the University is to contribute to the goal of broadening participation nationally in higher education. The challenge inherent in such an approach will be to define and identify promise, an issue that we discuss further in Chapter 5.

It can be seen, then, that this statement of purpose builds upon both the history of our University and the expectations of our community outlined earlier in this chapter. It also builds upon the work that emerged from our consultations about an institution that both takes academic excellence seriously and is committed to seeing ideas make a difference in the real world, a place both reflective and engaged. The following chapters explicate this vision more fully as regards both research and teaching, identify impediments to its achievement, and suggest ways in which we might make it more fully the hallmark of all that we do. Indeed, in ways that are explored more fully in Chapter 4, we should use it as a litmus test for identifying not only those new activities that we ought to embark upon, but also those of our current activities that do not fit with our core purpose and from which we ought, where possible, to withdraw.

Before turning to these issues, however, it is important to outline the context, both external and internal, in which our strategic planning is taking place. Chapter 2 focuses on the external context in which the University is operating, a context of increased international competition for the best staff and students, and developing public expectations of our work. This context is presented at this point in the Green Paper, not because it ought wholly to drive our strategy, but because it sets many of the parameters for our planning. Chapter 3 focuses on the context internal to the University in which our strategic planning exercise is taking place. In particular, it looks at impediments to achieving our strategic purpose that arise from the current organisation and administration of the University, and from our constrained financial resources and physical infrastructure. It presents these issues at this point, again not because they ought exclusively to determine our strategy, but because they are challenges that we cannot afford to ignore.