Vice-Chancellor's Report

Unifying diversity

Dr Michael Spence

The past 18 months has been a period of intense activity as we have been implementing much of our current Strategic Plan, and I believe the changes are really quite significant.

There’s been activity on many fronts. Curriculum reforms, improvements to enrich our students’ experience of university, significant development of cross-disciplinary research initiatives and progress on several major infrastructure projects.

We have revised our governance structure with five new divisional boards to cover the Natural Sciences, Architecture and Creative Arts, Business, Engineering, and Humanities and Social Sciences leading to a number of financial savings and efficiencies. And we’ve initiated a number of exciting new degrees such as a master’s course in International Relations which will highlight our research and teaching strengths, and an MBA offered by the Business School. (See Page 11).

We have also designed a comprehensive training program to help our PhD candidates better prepare for future employment. It will help them not only produce high quality theses, but be effective thinkers and communicators outside their particular disciplines. Our initiative follows the recent publication of the Australian government’s research workforce strategy and advice from groups such as the Business Higher Education Roundtable. Unfortunately, many employers do not regard Australian PhD graduates as suitable for managerial positions. At Sydney we are doing something practical to change that perception.

We have always placed great value on the student experience by enhancing the services and support we offer. With the help of federal government funding, we have established the Learning Networks Project, providing 700 seats in informal teaching and learning spaces across the campus. Fully equipped with the latest IT, they are proving immensely popular for individual and group work.

We are acutely aware that we must also address the shortage of residential accommodation. Currently we have just over 2500 beds spread across our residential colleges and rental houses, which is hardly enough. Our plan is to establish an Affordable Student Housing Fund which will deliver another 3000 beds on or close to campus in the next three or four years. Some of those beds may be located in the redeveloped Abercrombie Precinct, which will eventually house the new world-class Business School, presently constrained by having to teach in more than 20 different buildings of varying standards.

We have always placed great value on the student experience by enhancing the services and support we offer

There is a great deal of activity and energy on our campuses at the moment. The Fisher Library refurbishment is almost complete, construction on the new Charles Perkins Centre for research into obesity, diabetes and cardiovascular disease is underway, and planning is proceeding for the new Australian Institute for Nanoscience building which will house combined research, laboratories, teaching spaces and academic offices. We have appointed leaders for both the Charles Perkins Centre and the China Studies Centre, who are now working closely with our many academic experts in these disciplines.

These are the first of our major multi-disciplinary initiatives. Our aim is to create an environment that promotes cross-disciplinary collaborations of high social impact, through targeted and transparent investment in visionary research and education. We have also initiated the Sydney Southeast Asia Centre, bringing together nearly 200 academics from 13 different faculties who work in the region in disciplines ranging from archaeology and agriculture to health, medicine, law and government. We have a wealth of expertise and the centre’s key aim is to harness this unparalleled group into interdisciplinary teams to engage with big, real world problems and so make a difference in the region.

Our aim has been to rediscover what it means for so large and disparate an organisation to be a single university, a federation of academic communities working more closely together. We are indeed in the process of becoming one university.

The chancellor's 'youthfulness'

I met the Chancellor, who is stepping down in December (see Page 20), for the first time in her office as governor in Macquarie Street. It is a remarkable room: almost perfectly preserved, with the furniture, and many of the personal effects, of Henry Parkes. In contrast to that sombre Victorian setting, the Chancellor’s youthfulness was apparent. By ‘youthfulness’ I do not mean her extraordinary energy.

We have always joked with her gubernatorial staff that, when her capacity for work wears them out in Macquarie Street, they send her to the University, and that when we are panting to keep up with her, we send her back to town. But that is not what I mean by ‘youthfulness’. On that first meeting, we had a conversation about the wellbeing of students. It was clear that she immediately understood what it means to be a student at the University at the beginning of the 21st century, and was blessed with a unique capacity to relate to them as equals.

Although I knew from that first meeting what a privilege it would be to work with the Chancellor, my respect for her has only grown over the past four years. The University is profoundly indebted to her.