Rust never sleeps

By Professor John Hearn

Over the past six months in Shanghai, there has only been one show in town. The World Expo 2010 has been an event on a scale that is a trademark of the new China, a grand vision turned into reality for the enjoyment of 70 million visitors.

South-east of the Nanpu Bridge, buses and tour groups file patiently towards the Expo, on a site that was once an anonymous industrial district. And in case anyone has been in a long sleep, there are Expo information guides sitting under umbrellas on every city street corner, waiting to offer directions and assistance to passers-by.

The 2008 Beijing Olympics set the bar for what is possible in China, and Shanghai has gone all out to emulate and even better the northern capital’s achievement. In keeping with its status as the financial heart of China, it has spent even more on infrastructure for the Expo than Beijing did for the Olympics.

Image of the Australian Pavillion at the World Expo 2010 in Shanghai

The Australian Pavillion at the World Expo 2010 in Shanghai

Around one in ten Expo visitors, perhaps seven million in all, have queued to gain admission to the rusty-red steel shed that is the Australian Pavilion, where the University has been mixing with some of the biggest names in corporate Australia as a major sponsor.

The University is a gold sponsor of the pavilion alongside Qantas and LendLease. Only the platinum sponsors – Rio Tinto, BlueScope Steel and ANZ – have invested more. Some might see this as surprising, given that two years ago the University was at the sharp edge of the Global Financial Crisis. But as the GFC demonstrated, difficult situations demand positive action. With Australia’s higher education sector facing an uncertain future, investment in the World Expo is a stimulus package that we expect to pay dividends in the future.

There have been dire predictions of a fall in international student numbers to Australia, caused in large part by the introduction of tougher visa requirements. It would be disingenuous to pretend that we are not concerned about this. We have been welcoming ever-increasing numbers of Chinese students since 1979, when the first group of nine postgraduate students allowed to leave China under Deng Xiaoping’s reforms came to Sydney. We currently have around 5000 Chinese students, approximately 45 per cent of our international student population; and an active network of 15,000 alumni in China.

But our presence at the Expo is driven not so much by a concern to prop up our intake of Chinese students as by a desire to show that we are deadly serious about our relationship with China. It sends a message to our Chinese partners, to the Chinese government and the Australian government that we are a knowledge leader with deep research and educational links with China.

Those links have undoubtedly been strengthened by our Expo program, a series of symposia that has brought together academic leaders from both countries to discuss topics of mutual interest – spintronics technology, economics and business, biomedical engineering and IT, translational health, teaching and education, and university reform.

On top of this we have helped to organise – on behalf of the Australian government – and participate in a program of high-level Commonwealth Roundtables; staged a performance of the spectacular audio-visual show Music and the Cosmos, featuring musicians from the Conservatorium of Music and the Shanghai Conservatory, as well as astronomers from the School of Physics; and held a graduation ceremony in Shanghai for more than 200 of our China-based students.

Our plans will gain further momentum next year with the opening of the University’s new China Studies Centre, with a strong focus on the developing areas in the west of China, and our participation in Imagine Australia, the Year of Australian Culture in China.

It all adds up to a major commitment in terms of time and personnel, but one that stands us in good stead for the next stage of our engagement with China.

Professor John Hearn is Deputy Vice-Chancellor International and chief executive of the Worldwide Universities Network.