One year after the Strategic Plan and White Paper

12 September 2011

This is the first in a series of regular updates for all staff that the Vice-Chancellor and I will be writing. Our intention is to share with you our progress and our successes, and to seek your support in meeting our challenges. 

It's now a year since Senate approved the 2011-2015 Strategic Plan and White Paper, which examined many of the challenges we face, and as the Vice-Chancellor said in his recent video message, a huge number of projects are already well under way as we work to meet those challenges and realise our shared vision for the University. One of the most impressive features of this time has been the way faculties are embracing our aspirations for cross-disciplinary collaboration.

Throughout the past year, we have worked together internally to better understand our strengths and weaknesses as an institution. At the same time, we have gone through an important external evaluation process through the AUQA audit, and the latest University rankings have begun to appear.

Common themes have emerged from all of these activities: we are doing fabulously well in some areas, but not across the board. We are world class in terms of research and teaching in some areas, but there are areas of patchiness and weakness.

So this is one of our biggest challenges - the need to lift the quality of our overall performance across the University.

In doing so, our thinking should not simply be introspective; it is instructive to consider what others are doing to address performance. For example, the University of Queensland, which surged ahead in the Shanghai Jiao Tong rankings, has concentrated its resources in areas of key strength, although largely by shifting resources from faculties to centres and institutes. I'm not convinced this is the best strategy in the long term.

The University of Melbourne, which has improved its position by seven places in the just-released QS rankings, is pursuing a different strategy by tackling the issue of underperforming staff and allocating more resources to supporting, developing and managing such staff. These are issues Sydney will have to tackle with greater resolve.

In doing so, we should not lose sight of our key strength - our extraordinary range of disciplines. One of our challenges will be to sustain our genuine disciplinary strength while embracing the exciting opportunities for collaboration. 

To succeed, we need to move away from individual research silos and encourage staff to embrace the challenges of working across disciplines to solve some of the major problems facing the local, national and international communities we serve today. Many of you are already doing this, but in order to make a real difference as an institution, we must nurture some major cross-disciplinary initiatives such as the new centres focusing on China studies, and on obesity, diabetes and cardiovascular disease.

By doing this, we will communicate to the public that we bring together powerful minds and resources to solve problems, and we will be able to demonstrate to a sometimes sceptical public why universities matter and are relevant. Only thus will we be able to convince governments of the need for better funding and potential donors of the benefits of supporting our research and teaching programs.

We often bemoan the recent tightening of government funding for higher education, but it is worth remembering that up until the 1940s, private philanthropy provided around half of the University's annual budget. We were supported by large-scale donations from significant and leading Australians and we need to revive that tradition.

It seems that we may be starting to see a return to a more philanthropic culture. In fact, 2011 is shaping up to be our strongest year ever for income from donations, and we should all celebrate leading Australian businessman John Hooke's recent $5 million donation to nanoscience that will lead to technological developments which will change the way we live.

Transformational gifts like this can make an enormous difference not only for today's students and researchers, but for future generations. But we can only fulfil their full potential if we embrace the challenges posed by today's world, and work together to address them. That should be our legacy for future generations at the University of Sydney.

Stephen Garton
Provost and Deputy Vice-Chancellor