Vice-Chancellor's Report

An education open to all

Dr Michael Spence

One can only speculate whether William Charles Wentworth could have foreseen how his vision of a university would evolve into today’s institution; with more female than male students, increasing numbers of Indigenous students and an institution embedded in and engaged with our region.

What many at the time judged to be a bold experiment was much more than that. Our founders believed that new beginnings should be based on different principles – both public and secular, and ‘open to all’.

As two of our scholars, Dr Julia Horne and Emeritus Professor Geoffrey Sherington, point out in their splendid new book, Sydney: the making of a public university, it could be argued the University was based on seven pillars of wisdom: belief in the value of public institutions, of meritocracy, of liberal education and of research, a belief in the value of character building through mind and body, of the engagement of religious and secular faiths with knowledge, and of philanthropy.

Despite the claims about being open to all, some were more equal than others. Women were not admitted as undergraduate students until 1882, but then it was on an equal basis and to all courses, unlike Oxford, Cambridge and Melbourne. But it wasn’t until more than 100 years after the University was founded that an Indigenous Australian was admitted. In 1963, two Aboriginal students enrolled and Charles Perkins earned a place in history as the country’s first Aboriginal graduate.

However, progress has been painfully slow. Recently we have given considerable thought to how we approach Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander higher education, research and engagement. Our new integrated strategy establishes a vision for the University as a uniquely Australian institution that recognises rights, builds capability and creates opportunity.

Our founders believed we should be both public and secular

We have many challenges ahead but we have already acted on a number of issues, recruiting to a senior Aboriginal leadership role, finding new partnerships with Aboriginal and other community service organisations, investing in new cross-cultural training for staff and adding our world-class research talent to efforts to address the wicked problems Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples confront.

Our place in the Asian Century

We are as much a university for regional as for metropolitan NSW. In 1886 the Senate approved lectures being given outside the University, initially in the suburbs of Sydney, but soon also in Newcastle, Bathurst, and further afield. We have just celebrated 10 years of delivering medical education in Orange and Dubbo through our School of Rural Health which has the dual aims of teaching medicine in a rural setting and strengthening the medical workforce. Our coverage stretches from Bathurst in the east to Broken Hill in the west and from Lightning Ridge in the north to Cowra in the south – about a third of the state.

We were delighted that in the recent Federal budget, despite serious belt tightening in many areas, the University was granted $4.7 million to establish a series of multidisciplinary allied health clinics to be run through public and private primary schools in Broken Hill. One of the main aims is to improve child development, educational outcomes and family well-being for Broken Hill residents.

But it’s not only regional NSW where we are engaged. As we await the release of the Federal government’s White Paper on Australia’s Place in the Asian Century, the University of Sydney, more than ever before, is thoroughly committed to our region. We first began teaching Chinese language and culture to our students in the early 20th century. We were the first university in Australia to welcome Chinese students in the 1970s, and over the last three decades our relationship with China has strengthened through partnerships in many different spheres.

Today we are one of the most engaged universities in the world with China’s next generation: 5000 Chinese students are enrolled to study here, and we are involved in many exchanges and research collaborations across all of our academic activities. A recent Federal government report, Science and Research Collaboration between Australia and China, shows that the University published more joint papers with China from 2000-09 than any other Australian university.

Building on the momentum of our exciting China Studies Centre, we have recently announced the establishment of a new Sydney Southeast Asia Centre, bringing together the University’s 179 academics working throughout the region in research and capacity building. It will mould interdisciplinary teams to address questions such as emergency management, mobility and the refugee question, and practical issues such as the spread of infectious disease.

Our founders had the courage and foresight to establish a public university, open to all. Their values shaped our development in our role as an educator and expander of knowledge. Today’s comprehensive university may be a far cry from our modest beginnings, but it is one of which they would be proud.