Vice-Chancellor's Report

Beginning of an era

Dr Michael Spence

We all know there’s more to a story than the catchy headline. Particularly so when reading Australian media reports about higher education, where it seems an irresistible force compels journalists and editors to reduce complex issues to league tables and rankings.

Recently we received the first data assessing Excellence in Research for Australia (ERA) gathered by the Australian Research Council on more than 150 different disciplines across all Australian universities.

Despite the ARC’s warning that ERA was not devised as a tool for ranking universities and that it is not possible to add up or average scores to reach an overall ranking for an institution, we nevertheless were treated to front page headlines talking of global comparisons and below par institutions.

The reality is that the ERA results are extremely sensitive to size and focus of both institutions and disciplines. For example, a discipline represented by 100 researchers in one university and a much smaller team in another can lead to a higher score in the smaller team if it is well focused.

Limitations of methodology aside, ERA has been an extremely valuable exercise. This is a milestone for the Australian research enterprise, providing us with rich data to better understand our research performance.

Not surprisingly, the University of Sydney research stands among Australia’s best, and shows both breadth and depth, being at or above world standard in all 24 of the broad discipline areas in which it was rated.

We scored well above the world average across a wide spectrum of discipline areas; Mathematical Sciences, Physical Sciences, Biomedical and Clinical Health Sciences, History and Archaeology and Philosophy and Religious Studies.

Sydney also was rated to be above world standard in an additional ten disciplines areas; Earth Sciences; Environmental Sciences; Information and Computing Sciences; Engineering; Public and Allied Health Sciences; Commerce, Management, Tourism and Services; Psychology and Cognitive Sciences, Law and Legal Studies, Studies in Creative Arts and Writing; and Language Communication and Culture.

Again we were rated as being at or above the Australian average in a total of 21 of the 24 different broad discipline categories. There is much to be proud of in the contributions that our researchers make to the national interest, particularly considering our size and comprehensive make-up.

We have an enormous agenda ahead of us this year.

It is important to underline that this ERA report is based on data from 2003 to 2008. It provides an important benchmark and we are already preparing for another submission in 2012, which will allow opportunities to assess trends and improve the ERA methodology.

I have been heartened that the ERA data reveals and underlines the importance of our research strategies articulated in the Strategic Plan 2011-2015. I am looking forward to working across the University this year to implement those strategies.

Much of the University’s work last year, like our Strategic Plan, was never going to excite the headline writers. But I believe that as an institution we have made major steps in planning, in devising a new and more transparent budget process, and most importantly, in the way in which we as a university community work together and make decisions.

The higher education sector is constantly changing, and the recent Federal government decision to end funding for the Capital Development Pool and the Australian Learning and Teaching Council, highlights the need for us to be creative and more reliant on our own resources.

We have an enormous agenda ahead of us this year. Major projects like the new multi-disciplinary Centre for Obesity, Diabetes and Cardiovascular Disease and the revitalised Abercrombie precinct, involving a new Business School, are just two landmark buildings that will begin construction.

Equally important is our new China Studies Centre. It will bring together our extensive academic expertise, provide a hub for cross-disciplinary education and research and, like our US Studies Centre, provide a voice for public commentary as well as engagement with government, business and Chinese society. It promises to be an exciting year.

Gavin Brown

Like many in the university community I was deeply saddened to learn of Gavin Brown’s untimely death. It has been a great privilege to follow him as Vice-Chancellor, and I am constantly reminded of the enormous and lasting contributions he made to this great university. We have benefitted from the strength of his passion and commitment to improving research and research-led teaching. We maintain his belief that a complete university education involves much more than what takes place in the classroom. He has given us firm foundations on which we will continue to build and improve. He will not be forgotten.