Vice-Chancellor's Report

Building the education revolution

Dr Michael Spence

Higher education was just one of the matters that received little or no attention during the last Federal election campaign. This may have given the misleading impression that universities had slipped from the policy agenda.

More accurately perhaps, important issues such as the level of international student recruitment or support for social equity programs became obscured by populist arguments over immigration and waste in the school building program.

International education, particularly study in Australia, provides significant economic benefits for this country, yet it is much more than a business. The relationships formed through international education underpin Australia’s engagement with the world, and help create and sustain goodwill, trade and investment. They are the foundation of future research collaboration.

Another disappointing issue to emerge during the campaign raised questions over the economic benefits of programs aimed at lifting education outcomes in the state’s poorest schools and funding to help universities enrol more students from low socio-economic backgrounds.

Social equity programs and the importance of international education are two of the key planks of our recently published White Paper 2011-2015.

Attracting promising students, whatever their background, is core to our sense of purpose and consistent with our history. One of our aims is to diversify our student population and particularly to increase the participation of students from low socio-economic, Indigenous, rural or remote backgrounds.

In many ways the White Paper is a revolutionary document. It outlines a radical new way of thinking for the University and sets out our future directions for the next five years. It follows ten months of extensive consultation with staff, students and the wide range of groups in the University community after the earlier Green Paper outlined options and areas for discussion.

Our clear sense of purpose is evidenced by central values of engaged enquiry and mutual accountability that underline all research and teaching activities. We view research and teaching together because we believe there should be consistency and coherence in our students’ and researchers’ learning as they work to hone their skills in critical thinking and analysis to advance knowledge and understanding.

While building on the traditional disciplines, we bring them together to solve complex problems ...

While building on the traditional disciplines, we bring them together to solve complex problems in cross-disciplinary education and collaborative research, working to solve complex social problems. This approach is exemplified, in particular, through the establishment of the new centre for study and research into obesity, diabetes and cardiovascular disease.

This purpose-built $390m facility will bring together expertise from across the University: the humanities and social sciences, the natural and medical sciences and clinical research will work together on one of the most critical health issues facing the modern world. It will be the largest venture of its type ever undertaken by the University, and an exemplar of cross-disciplinary research and education in an area of high social impact.

Other initiatives include the building of a $110m facility for nanoscience research which has recently been awarded Commonwealth support; and the establishment of University-wide centres for education and research on China and South East Asian Studies.

Further significant initiatives include a major reform of the undergraduate generalist degrees so that the first year, in particular, better meets the needs of students. We are reinforcing our commitment to putting the student first and will be enhancing the student experience with a rigorous reorganisation of student administration to create a clear path for the student’s relationship with the University, from first enquiry to alumni engagement.

In a move to build better teaching and research collaboration and to reduce academic and administrative duplication, the University has agreed to new arrangements under which groups of faculties will work together as divisions. This does not mean a merger of faculties. Each faculty will retain its distinct identity and will work together in divisional groups.

I believe these new arrangements will enable better curriculum development among groups of faculties, greater collaboration and cross disciplinary research, and better financial management and accountability, while allowing each faculty to maintain its individuality.

Given the very high quality of our undergraduate student population, we believe it to be implausible that the University should move to a predominantly postgraduate student mix, though some movement in this direction is desirable.

The University is travelling well and I have been heartened by the extent of the goodwill and involvement of so many of our staff and alumni as we have gone through the process to the White Paper. But there is always more to do if we are to continue to improve and make this an even greater institution.