A final speech from the vice-chancellor
23 June 2008
Chancellor, Your Excellency Professor Marie Bashir, Former Chancellor, Dame Leonie Kramer, Fellows of Senate, Colleagues, Ladies and Gentlemen.Thank you for your kind words, Dame Leonie. I have had the privilege of working with three Chancellors during my term of office - Dame Leonie Kramer, The Honourable Kim Santow who, sadly, passed away earlier this year and Her Excellency Professor Marie Bashir. I have been lucky and lucky also to be able to hand over the University in somewhat better shape than I found it. I welcome my successor, Dr Michael Spence, a Sydney boy and a Sydney graduate who returns from Oxford. As a mathematician I enjoy symmetry. Twelve years ago I was piped into this Great Hall by Nicholas Bilinsky and tonight I will be piped out by Nicholas Bilinsky. In my inaugural address I borrowed from Sandy Lindsay of Balliol and claimed to be a conservative, a liberal and a socialist. I will now commit the solecism of quoting from my words on that occasion. As a Conservative, I stated that "I value that intellectual heritage that gives form and substance to our society. Although the University does not exist as an immutable monocultural entity - I suppose I am a radical conservative - I hold with passion to a higher vision than the mere instrumental." I still do and say as much frequently but this is an area of failure. My perception is that over the last decade or so the general debate in Australia over universities has become increasingly instrumental in tone. Of course it is part of our task to prepare students for employment but I persist in the belief that the greatest gift we confer on our students is the opportunity to contribute more effectively to our society, both spiritually and materially. As a liberal, I stated "that I value the independence and autonomy of universities and of student organisations." Yet I have seen in the last few years harsh legislation which has placed student organisations in jeopardy. At least in Sydney we have taken vigorous steps to preserve their autonomy. I said also that "We cannot achieve our institutional goals through selfish action … Existing overseas links will be intensified, giving more opportunities for our own students and staff and bringing to Sydney students and academics from a full range of countries and cultures." I am happy to say that we now have a strong United States Studies Centre and just this week opened a Confucius Centre which will provide a focus for wider engagement with China. I am proud of increasing research collaborations with China, and, indeed, throughout the Pacific Rim, and of growing links and exchanges in the Middle East. These are only a very few highlights of our international engagement. As a Socialist, I stated that "I welcome the expansion of higher education so that others, like me, can be the first in their families to experience university." "We are committed", I said, "to making places available to outstanding students independent of their background and that includes special entry schemes and scholarships." I am glad to report that the University of Sydney now provides in excess of $10m a year in support of scholarships. I sense, however, a whiff of Groundhog Day. When I began there was a review of higher education. Just this week, we had the preliminary discussion draft of a new review of higher education, the Bradley Review. There is a way in which this can be seen as right and proper. The almost unreasonable persistence of universities as institutions through the ages is based on constant re-invention and adaptation to a changing context. Indeed I would go so far as to suggest that there is a dangerous myth that universities are sustained by carrying forward a long tradition which embodies a widely shared complex of universal beliefs. I fear that it is our habit to recreate the history of bygone universities to match what we perceive as the spirit of our age. Thus Matthew Arnold praised the medieval universities for having two great ideals - the pursuit of beauty and the pursuit of conduct. The latter expresses a concept of spiritually inspired good works. Surely this is more Victorian than medieval? (I use Victorian in the temporal rather than the geographical sense.) At the beginning of the 20th century, Ortega invited us to rediscover the glories of the medieval university and its curriculum - for the latter presented the canon of great works, the summation of the progress of human society and our developed understanding of the nature of external things. Others see medieval universities as self-governing kibbutzim of masters and scholars with knowledge and truth the ultimate determinants of action. Having first graduated from a university founded in 1410, I have a right to climb on this bandwagon. First I like to emphasise the spirit of mercantilism which has persisted to our times. In 1442 a petition was framed on behalf of the citizens of Ferrara to re-establish a university there. This is my all-time favourite university quote. "For to begin with its utility, strangers will flock hither from various remote regions, and many scholars will stay here, live upon our bread and wine, and purchase of us clothing and other necessities of human existence, will leave their money in the city, and not depart hence without great gain to all of us. Moreover, our citizens who go elsewhere to acquire an education and take their money there, will have an academy at home where they can learn without expense, and our money will not fly away." Is this the modern rationale for regional universities and for full-fee places for overseas students? The Bradley Review discussion paper notes that over 50% of overseas students are in Sydney or Melbourne and speculates that a more even geographical spread might benefit Australian higher education as a whole. Around the same time as the Ferrara petition, i.e. in the mid 15th century, there were two teaching factions in German universities. Some followed the old schoolmen, Aquinas, Duns Scotus, Albertus Magnus, and styled this the ancient way. Others followed on from William of Ockham, a mere century earlier, and subscribed to the modern way. Generally each university chose one of the ways and prohibited the other. The Rector of Heidelberg in 1452 was a true liberal and issued the following decree: "We forbid anyone to hinder scholars by word or deed from freely hearing and attending lectures or disputations of any master belonging to the faculty, whether he be in the Via Antiqua or the Via Moderna". This was too much for his faculty of Arts which passed its own decree in 1455 preventing credit transfer. I quote:" A scholar transferring from one Via to another ought to have all the requirements for the degree for which he is working … That is to say, a scholar transferring from the Via Moderna to the Via Antiqua … Should attend those lectures exercises and examinations which are customary for the ancients as if he had never heard any of the Via of the moderns, so that the formalities of the Via Moderna are not accepted in the lectures or exercises or time or time for those wishing to be promoted in the Via Antiqua" - and vice versa. There is an eternal truth that one of the greatest threats to academic freedom resides within the academy itself and, of course, that wise vice-chancellors do not dictate to Academic Boards. Medieval universities were also, of course, intensely conservative instruments of both Church and State, ruthlessly repressing the unorthodox. They were also protectionist trade guilds restricting the entrepreneurship in others. The 13th century statutes of the University of Paris insist, in the name of God, that craftspeople such as surgeons engage only in manual practice and that apothecaries or herbalists only mix potions but do not administer them. This required a definition of dangerous drugs. Purveying of rosewater was permissible but the supply of laxatives required the presence of a master of medicine. Perhaps I should be more explicit in my discussion of the Bradley review. There are two issues which I would like to address. The first concerns "social inclusion" where statistics concerning the spread of low SES backgrounds across our universities are provided. Needless to say the Group of Eight universities admit more students with high SES backgrounds as do the Russell Group of universities in the UK and the Ivy League institutions in the US. Now I have already stated my commitment to social inclusion. In fact, as I stated 12 years ago, "I believe also that our many institutions and professions benefit from, indeed depend upon, having membership from a broad cross-section of our society". My point is that early intervention is necessary. This starts with pre-school opportunities and runs right through the education system. Universities can and should help with this but mere tinkering with entry requirements is fools' gold. In similar vein I believe that external examinations in high school constitute a valuable tool for social justice. The other issue which I would like to discuss briefly is research. It seems likely that research and research training in universities will be discussed separately from the other activities that we undertake. There are very good intentions here and it makes sense to consider research policy in the context of the innovation and industry portfolios. Provided that there is very strong cooperation between Julia Gillard's portfolio and Kim Carr's then there are obvious ensuing benefits. I am however, sounding a warning because research in the humanities could find itself squeezed. Our belief in research-led teaching will require firm advocacy. There is also a worry that there may be pressure towards applied research in all disciplines. Some years ago the US Council on Competitiveness, which brings together business CEO's, university presidents and labour leaders, issued a report called Going Global discussing the future base of the US economy. Let me quote Bennett Shapiro from Merck, writing in that report: If we push universities towards more applied research, our future competitiveness will be in jeopardy. The balance has already shifted too far, with universities and national laboratories finding economic justifications for structuring a research agenda that is more useful to companies today. The result will be an impoverishment of discovery to fuel the industries of tomorrow. These comments are difficult to reconcile with my radical conservative, liberal, socialist views because research is a kind of Via Moderna for universities. It was an add-on from late 19th century Germany. At present every Australian university appears to have "advancement of knowledge by research" as part of its mission statement and, all credit to the Bradley Review, this is being challenged. My warning is that the challenge is greater than the simplistic question of whether there should be teaching-only universities, it goes to the fabric of the research-intensive university and we should be prepared to re-evaluate our assumptions. Let me turn to two other matters not directly canvassed in the Review, but matters which concern me. The first of these I discussed in this Hall twelve years ago but I underestimated the speed of change. This is the question of the University as a business. We are now an enterprise with a $1.4b budget. One third comes from student fees (including HECS), one third from research earnings, one sixth from what we might call direct government operating grant and the remaining sixth coming from investment income, other commercial activities and donations and bequests. Observe that much more than one sixth is ultimately sourced from government or, as in the case of HECS, effectively guaranteed by government. I want to be accurate! The point remains, however, that our planning, including academic planning, must incorporate a commercial element. This is why you read articles about creeping managerialism in universities. As one of my colleagues recently remarked, There is no point in designing the perfect car if you don't remember to go out and obtain fuel to drive it. The danger, of course, is that we could become obsessed by acquiring resources in order to achieve our lofty goals - if only we could remember them! I like to believe that we have achieved a balance at the University of Sydney, but it is a balance and a precarious one. The second issue was not on my radar screen twelve years ago. After a few years I felt that the Australian vice-chancellor was beginning to change towards the US university president. When I first revealed this not very startling insight I experienced some pain because some felt I was developing delusions of grandeur. It's not like that at all! Many US university presidents concentrate on the external function, lobbying, fund-raising and developing business contacts. The internal operations of the university including senior academic appointments are often the responsibility of the Provost. Recently I introduced a position of Provost here with some of these characteristics and with evolution in mind. Meanwhile in other parts of the Australian system another form of evolution may be taking place. In that scenario it is the Chancellor who morphs into the US president while the vice-chancellor morphs into the provost. Just last week there was speculation that Chancellors might become paid professionals in some form of that role. There appears to be a somewhat related tug-of-war at the University of New England and I confess to being happy that I am a mere spectator. I would like to draw to a close on a more personal note. Having been asked many times lately about what it is like to be a vice-chancellor, I now have a rehearsed answer. Provided one is sufficiently robust, in the sense of being self-referenced, it is a magnificently satisfying role. There is constant varied intellectual stimulation and the organisation is so complex that one is always learning. I have found it both a privilege and a joy to occupy this role and I am profoundly grateful for the opportunity. I thank so many people for helping me over the years and I thank so many people for coming this evening. I am thrilled about what that says about the significance and relevance of the University of Sydney to our society. Thank you all for being here.
Contact: Andrew Potter
Phone: 02 9351 4514 or 0414 998 521