University anniversaries

Sesquicentenary 1999-2002

Sesquicentenary Colloquium Dinner, 12 October 2002

The University of Sydney Sesquicentenary celebrations commenced in 1999 and commemorated various important phases in the foundation of the University.

At 6.00pm on 12 October 2002, the University of Sydney Sesquicentenary celebrations culminated in a Sesquicentenary Colloquium Dinner in the MacLaurin Hall for students and staff, alumni and friends, with the topic "Revisiting the Idea of a University". This event was organized with the assistance of alumnae Jeanette Beaumont and Anne Le Couteur.

The University chose six graduates to discuss the past and future of the University in the areas of research, scholarship, training and funding, with dinner guests challenged to respond.

Photography is courtesy of ZOOM Productions.

The six panelists and their topics were:

Colloquium dinner

The dinner in MacLaurin Hall.

Table setting

The table setting for the dinner.

Adam Spencer

Moderator Adam Spencer.


The panelists and Adam Spencer.

Professor Maxwell Bennett AO and Dr John Vallance

Professor Maxwell Bennett AO and Dr John Vallance.

Dr John Vallance and Elizabeth Farrelly

Dr John Vallance and Elizabeth Farrelly.

  • Pre-dinner drinks
  • Welcome from the Vice-Chancellor, Professor Gavin Brown
  • Main course
  • Colloquium part 1, with Fellow of Senate Adam Spencer convening the panel and inviting questions. This involved the first four panelists.
  • Cheese & fruit
  • Colloquium part 2, involving the last two panelists.
  • Dessert


Welcome from the Vice-Chancellor

Chancellor, distinguished guests all, welcome to McLaurin Hall at the University of Sydney, welcome to a part of our sesquicentenary celebrations, and particularly to this climax weekend in which we celebrate the inauguration of the university, which was the occasion in which the three original professors, in mathematics, classics and science, lined up with the twenty-four original students to create the university that this has become. It’s been a proud 150 years. You might think that it’s unnecessary for us to ask the question ‘what is a university?’ after 150 years of trying, but tonight we will have some very distinguished people tackling that question, and it is in fact an entirely appropriate question to tackle, because the clear and distinguished thing about universities is that they’re hugely adaptive organisms, and that the unreasonable persistence of universities as institutions over the years has been due to the fact that they do continuously adapt, despite the apparent glacial processes of our bureaucracy, we do in fact adapt very fast, and we help society to adapt, so it’s an important theme. The university itself has one very simple goal I think, and that simple goal is to be the measuring stick by which all Australian universities are measured internationally, and that contains two ideas, one of them of course is that we must be completely outstanding within Australia, and secondly, we must look one step beyond to be clearly recognised internationally as being as outstanding as we seek to be. I certainly believe that we have been making very substantial progress towards that goal: at the present time all Australian education is under the microscope and we are contributing vigorously to that investigation, but we approach the future with very considerable confidence. And the fact that so many people have come here this evening to celebrate with us, where we’ve reached so far on our journey, is enormously encouraging, and I thank you all for being here and welcome you all most warmly.

Chief Justice Jim Spigelman

An event such as this sesquicentennial celebration of the inauguration of the University of Sydney in 1852, is an opportunity to celebrate the great institutional traditions of which the present members of the University are trustees. Of these traditions, none is more significant than the principle of liberal education which received its most expansive statement in John Henry Newman's classic "The Idea of a University", albeit in the overblown rhetoric of high Victoriana. There is an aptness, indeed a poignancy, in the fact that the delivery of the public lectures which form the basis of Newman's book, occurred in the same year as this university was inaugurated. Accordingly, this year is also the sesquicentenary of Newman's contribution to the philosophy of higher education.

The basic themes of Newman's approach are well known:

Knowledge is an end in itself, to be pursued for its own sake and not for some utilitarian value.
The university is first and foremost a community of scholars, teachers and students devoted to the pursuit of truth.
The core of the curriculum is the humanities which represent the highest attainment of cultivated minds.
The ‘idea’ of which Newman spoke used the word in the sense of ‘ideal’. The model which he urged on his Dublin audience, seeking their support, particularly financial, for the creation of a new Catholic university in Dublin, was that of the unreformed Oxford in which he had spent his formative years. The fact that he had been cast out from Oxford, even before his formal conversion to Catholicism, for his expression of what had become increasingly unorthodox theological opinions, did not, it appears, detract from his concept of the "ideal". His was a Platonic ideal, divorced from practice.

There is, and remains, a high level of irony in Newman's simultaneous advocacy of the virtues of the clash of ideas as a means for discovering the truth, on the one hand, and his preparedness to embrace dogma that, in respects he regarded as most critical to human well being, held that truth had already been discovered, and that there were institutions which could state the truth with complete authority.

Nevertheless, his statement of the core concept of a university has retained its appeal. I select one of a number of alternative formulations of the same idea. It was delivered, appropriately enough, after an expression of hope that "the reader", referred to as such in the Victorian manner in case there was some doubt as to who it might be who was looking at the page, would not be rendered weary by the repetition. The University, Newman said:

“... is the place to which a thousand schools make contributions; in which the intellect may safely range and speculate, sure to find its equal in some antagonist activity, and its judge in the tribunal of truth. It is a place where inquiry is pushed forward and discoveries verified and perfected, and rashness rendered innocuous, and error exposed, by the collision of mind with mind, and knowledge with knowledge. It is the place where the professor becomes eloquent, and is a missionary and a preacher, displaying his science in its most complete and most winning form, pouring it forth with the zeal of enthusiasm, and lighting up his own love of it in the breasts of his hearers.”

Newman was writing in the wake of the triumph of utilitarianism as an animating philosophy of English social and political life. We ourselves live in the wake of the triumph of the spiritual descendants of the Utilitarians. It is, perhaps, for that reason that his words have a particular resonance for this time.

For several decades, the theme of "education for growth", and the accompanying dominance of a managerialist philosophy in university decision-making, has often led to a failure to give much more than lip service to the cultural, social, moral and intellectual purposes of higher education. No-one has ever denied such purposes, but any factor incapable of measurement for purposes of accountability or inclusion in a funding formula, has for some time been given little weight. We are all impoverished by this.

At a time when more and more things are judged merely be commercial standards, it is important to assert that there are other values in life. The value of intellectual exchange and endeavour cannot be assessed by short term fluctuations in demand nor by what is bought and sold. Not everything that counts can be counted.

That is not to say that economic welfare is irrelevant. Indeed a strong case can be made for the proposition that a broad based liberal tertiary education is essential for our economic future. The focus on vocational education in the narrow sense of training is distinguishable from inculcation in the historical, social and environmental dimensions of a vocation. The latter requires context and depth. Mere training produces specialists who will find it difficult to adapt to the future demands of their vocation. Nor will it provide us with that substantial body of creative men and women capable of ensuring that Australia has a place at the forefront of the global industry in ideas which - from computer programming to movies, from industrial design to medical invention - has been the most dynamic source of economic progress in the contemporary era.

Consider a mental exercise of estimating the market value of all of the assets in the world, by different classifications, over time. For the whole of human history, until recently, there would be no doubt that the single most valuable asset was real estate. Perhaps one or even two decades ago that changed. In my guesstimate, at some such point, the total value of the world's intellectual property came to exceed the total value of the world's real estate. By now, the latter is a distinct second and will continue to recede.

The creativity required for the continuing development of intellectual property cannot be supplied by narrow vocational education. The well springs of creativity are many and varied. A broad liberal education on its own or as a precursor to, or part of, a vocational degree, is more likely to create that flexibility of mind and capacity for insight that is the source of much intellectual property.

Today, perhaps the most difficult thing to accept in Newman's idea of the university is the use of the definite article. He spoke of The idea of a university. His themes, however, constitute only one idea of a university. Perhaps a fundamental, or core idea, perhaps a component of any university education. They are not, however, the only aspect of such education that is entitled to emphasis.

This University commenced in its first three professorships with an approach similar to the unreformed Oxford model advanced by Newman. That was understandable. In 1852 Oxford and Cambridge were the natural role models for this university. However, his was not the only model of tertiary education, even then. To use an example from the law, with which I am most familiar, vocationally orientated legal education in London was conducted by the Inns of Court, which were referred to as "The Third University".

Within a few decades of its inauguration this University established its major professional faculties. Since that time, this vocational orientation has been an integral part of the University of Sydney's tradition. Newman did not value such a development. In that regard, I believe, he was wrong. One cannot now adopt Newman's concept of the University without amendment. He identifies one, albeit vital, component of our institutional tradition, but it is only one.

It is trite to observe that a very substantial proportion of innovations and ideas that are driven by a determination to be useful have proven useless. Many ideas and innovations that originated in a quest for knowledge for its own sake have turned out to have the greatest practical significance.

Experience suggests that we should display more modesty than we do about our ability to predict what will be useful. For that reason, there is, in my opinion, much good sense in recent debate on higher education in Australia, a debate into which I tread with trepidation, which emphasises the need to encourage a diversity of tertiary institutions and diversity within institutions. Diversity in our institutional arrangements, including amongst our educational institutions, is as important to the health of our society as bio-diversity is to our ecology. And for much the same reasons. That is one reason why the market system is not a universally applicable model.

In many ways, what I have been saying is a traditionalist approach, which has not been in favour over recent decades. However, I would not wish to be misunderstood as an advocate of a university pickled in last century's aspic. There is a pressing need for the university, like all of our institutions, to adjust and adapt to contemporary pressures. Nothing indicates this better than Newman's own fate.

First, his terms of four years as the first Rector of the new Catholic University of Dublin was a failure. Neither his fundraising capability, nor his capacity to attract students proved equal to his rhetoric.

Furthermore, John Henry Newman would have had no doubt that the study of theology was at the core of a university curriculum. Theology was one of the great traditional professions. It is a much diminished subject and profession today.

Newman's vast bulk of theological writing is studied today by only the most esoteric of scholars. His great works, including The Idea of a University and his personal record of conversion, Apologia Pro Vita Sua, have stood the test of time.

Samuel Johnson once said: “A writer is judged by his worst work when he is alive and by his best work when he is dead.”

In contrast, Shakespeare had Mark Anthony say:

The evil that men do lives after them;
The good is oft interred with their bones.

Newman is lucky that, in his case, it was Johnson who proved to be right.

Elizabeth Farrelly

Some people collect domain names. Secretaries. Or customized rego plates.

But I have always thought it the height of sophistication to have your own postcode. So self-possessed, so significant, so absolutely, unequivocally BIG, say those four small digits. I reckon, as status symbols go, the personalised postcode must be the pinnacle of having made it. And in this regard the University of Sydney – aka 2006 - stands supreme.

Now, though, I may have to revise this opinion. Suddenly it seems post-codes, like empires, may turn out to be as fashion-afflicted as everything else.

I’ll start at the beginning.

If John Ralston Saul is right to define a university as ”a place in which a civilisation’s knowledge is divided up into exclusive territories,” a place where academics engage principally in inventing “dialects sufficiently hermetic” to reinforce the boundaries of those territories…

If he is right – and I’m not saying that he is, certainly not with regard to 2006 – then it starts at least to explain why the university campus is what it is today. No longer a seamless continuum of crumbling cloisters and ancient staircases but a staccato scattering of feudal castles, moated by chewings fescue and defended from the battlements with boiling oil, or worse.

In such a campus, the space between castles – the inter-castellar space, if you like – is unowned, unchampioned, and all-too-easily unloved. Like public space in cities it rapidly reduces to what architects call SLOAP – Space Left Over After Planning.

And it’s not just the campus’ constituent parts. For decades - centuries, even - universities themselves have seemed quite as determined as their particular feudal territories to withdraw from the world at large, their isolation just as complete and fortified with comparable zeal. Ivory towers, all that.

But now, as universities evolve from Jefferson’s ‘academical villages’ to resemble small towns in their own right, this inter-castellar space emerges as the key to a successful working campus. The internal coherence and external connectedness of this inbetween space is the key to collegiate life.

Now you might expect - in these virtualising times, when on-line degrees figure at least as largely in your overnight junk email as adverts for non-prescription Viagra, celebrity sex safaris and DIY herbal breast enlargements - in such times you might expect all this to change.

You might expect the physical defendedness of these academic fortresses to diminish. You might expect the doughty town-gown barriers to crumble.

You might even expect, as we’ve all been led to, that as the knowledge business becomes increasingly ephemeral, universities themselves might cease to exist, physically, requiring us merely to re-engage in the great e-colloquium-in-the-sky through our poolside or doona-top keyboards. Many a seer has augured thus.

Nothing could be further from the truth. With the evisceration of physicality by electronics, the material aspect of human life and learning becomes, if anything, more emphatic.

Now more than ever, as a prominent ex-vice-chancellor has been heard to pronounce, a sexy campus equals a marketing edge – an irreducible point of difference in a world that cannot be relied upon to know one e-degree from another.

At the same time, as the devolutionary sway of post-modern thinking inveigles itself through university life and thought, accompanied by the ever-sharper pinch of funding starvation, faculties, schools and departments re-badge as research foundations, knowledge centres and business units. So guised, they divide naturally into those that can pay their way – clearly distinguishable on campus by their glossy, glassy, classy buildings and wall-to-wall designer gadgetry – and those that cannot.

This new hierarchy effectively inverts the original university mission, sending ‘pure’ disciplines – which inculcate intellectual training for its own sake, and which were once the university’s pride, as well as its raison d’etre - well down the threadbare end of campus. While the more ‘useful’, vocational (and profitable) disciplines, some of which wouldn’t have been let in the tradesman’s entrance of a renaissance university, run the show. Especially if they can attract lucrative research grants or overseas students.

In the user-pays model, rich faculties wallow in material goods – space and equipment - which they rent to the poor faculties. Making the rich richer, and the poor disappear. Puff of smoke, poof!

“See?” quips the faculty of How to Make Money and Network A lot, “We told you philosophy/classics/education was nothing but smoke and mirrors.”

In this way the problem of poverty becomes self-limiting. And the feudal territories are further reinforced.

Sure, it’s harsh. But life is harsh. And many might argue that a dose of reality does a university culture no harm.

As individuals and groups within a university compete for increasingly scarce resources, however, the old give-and-take collegiate dynamic morphs into a convincing replica of urban politics, with faculties as developers-cum-constituents screaming for more, and university executives increasingly force-moulded as politicians, more adept in fine-tuned tactical expedience than mapping the scholarly path

The town-gown simile works both ways, of course, and the word campus, spun for university use, has come to signify any form of planning comprised principally of moated castles. Canberra is an obvious example, with each nuclear institution sustained in its vehement separateness by a spreading apron of sacred greenspace.

At the same time, of course, knowledge itself is becoming less a collection of discrete Aristotelian categories than a vast net of hyper-links and interdependencies. Less Dewey Decimal, more world-wide-web.

What, then, might a web-type model of knowledge and learning signify for university planning? More emphasis on linkage, for one thing. More focus on streets and spaces, on views and vistas, axes, relationships and interconnections. Higher priority on public spaces, less on feudal fortifications; more common space, more sharing; more focus on the white, less on the yolk. More, if you will, of a female emphasis on relationship over object.

This of course is standard urban design theory. And it is gratifying to see that it underpins every step of the University of Sydney’s new masterplan, by Mitchell Giurgola & Thorpe. It’s not called a masterplan, it’s called Campus 2010. But the gist is the same.

Other universities have done this sort of thing already. Sydney, blessed by one of the most beautiful campuses in the country, has so far elected to recline instead on laurels won for it by the Blackets, the Barnets and even the Wilkinsons in endowing the term ‘sandstone university’ with its now invincible aura of endurance, intelligence and grace.

Edmund Blacket, our greatest gothicist, resigned as Colonial Architect in order to invent a new university for Sydney town. His letter to the Registrar (dated 17 January 1855) convinced the Senate that, Sydney clay being too light and its stone too dark to provide sufficient contrast for the combined style, the new university building should be built entirely of stone, at a tidy cost of £148,000.

No populism here, thank you very much. Blacket was a committed medievalist; his were every inch the dreaming spires on the hill. Or perhaps the Spires Dreaming, in antipodean format. And the University’s motto, Sidere mens eadem mutato (which in my translation renders “the mind remains the same no matter the place”) – or, more loosely, ‘We may be stuck in this moral and intellectual backwater but we’re every bit as good as you guys’. Sydney rules OK, okay? The motto reflects the same overriding urge for independence – removal, even - from physical context.

And yet it is a mark of their greatness that these buildings – the Quadrangle, the Great Hall, the Maclaurin, the Anderson Stuart - which are still the campus cornerstones, so readily adopt the new agenda, offering the world-at-large friendship, not disdain. Working from this origin, Campus 2010 rethinks the beautiful campus to improve its links both internally, and with a changing environment; supporting scholarship, protecting the planet, welcoming the wider world.

Closer to the ground this involves a range of measures: addressing new buildings to enrich, not diminish the public streets and spaces; enhancing traditional axes; rationalising teaching space; undergrounding car-parks; improving pedestrian routes; making retail and service spaces more accessible; showing a friendlier general face.

And what of the post-code in this ceaseless global flux? Will that simple, simplifying device - so fearlessly symbolising the unversity’s singularity and insularity - be broken up and shared with the broader community like some sorry soviet cookie?

Well no, probably not. Old post-codes, we are assured, never die. They just e-vaporate.

Dr John Vallance

We like to chuckle at scholars and what they do. As an undergraduate prowling around the Fisher stack, I can remember (to my shame) my amusement at the title of Salaman’s History and Social Influence of the Potato. Brian Simpson’s wonderful book Cannibalism and the Common Law is unlikely to be on the shelves of many suburban solicitors. Last week I came across a conference paper with the title: Insects, urine, and flatulence: motifs of control and turbulence in Warner Brothers’ cartoon soundtracks”. Scholars are not, on the whole, much interested in fighting back at people who chuckle at them. When they do defend themselves, irony is often the preferred weapon. Dr Johnson called himself a harmless drudge. (Woe betide anyone, of course, who believed him.) The real scholar’s life, he wrote, is not a glamorous one – the concomitant evils include toil, envy, want, patronage and jail. In classical antiquity, Timon of Phlius compared the scholars in the Museum of Alexandria to the inhabitants of a hencoop, perpetually squabbling and feeding off each other. I’m sure we all know departments like that. So the question facing the modern University is stark. How far should scholarship be supported when there are so many other demands on resources, when the products of scholarship often seem so irrelevant to the demands of daily life, and scholars themselves so difficult to manage?

The answer is equally stark. Without scholarship, you don’t have a University at all.

At the end of the second world war, a report was commissioned into the state of British Universities. The war had shown the way forward, and the way forward was with practical science. Set against the scientists, those who taught and worked in the liberal disciplines, it was argued, contributed little. Forgetting perhaps the spectacular successes of linguists and historians at Bletchley in breaking German codes, the report concluded that their work too often was not useful in any commonly accepted sense; they offered nothing useful to society at large, nor any spiritual guidance, or coherent world view to their students. From that time on, Universities throughout the Western World have been forced to think carefully about what kind of work should be supported, and how its quality should be judged.

So what is scholarship? How is it to be justified? For some, the term hints at a world of academic pedantry, sterility and arrogant elitism. For others, it represents the high-water-mark of disinterested critical engagement with the products of our own existence. Etymologically, however, the word has to do with leisure and that’s not a good start, so let me explain.

As far back as written history takes us, people have paused from time to time to contemplate things relating to life and its activities that are not immediately productive of material goods. Every undergraduate doing an arts degree knows this. The production of material goods is clearly of vital importance, as is the training of people who can minister to the practical needs of the community. The vast majority of undergraduates, once they have enjoyed this vital period of freedom, go into jobs which serve practical ends. But in every generation, a small number choose a life which does not appear to satisfy the material needs of society at all.

We call some of these people scholars; the word itself connotes the material unproductivity of what they do. A distinction can usefully be drawn between scholarship and research, because research (on my argument) generally has a purpose – the investigation of a particular problem the solution to which may bring a tangible and measurable benefit to society. (Many scientists will disagree, but the bodies that award research grants would not.) Scholarship serves no obvious end. Anyone walking into a bookshop and seeing all those high quality modern synoptic works on philosophy and history enjoying great public success might also disagree, but this kind of popularity is not the purpose of scholarship. It is a by-product, and perhaps a mark of the esteem in which educated men and women hold scholars.

At its most basic level, scholarship involves open-ended, thoughtful reflection about what it is to be alive, about what people do and have done. It’s about understanding, thinking, conversing, learning, teaching without any concern for the ways in which the products of the work might be deployed in the satisfaction of our material needs. It is the unique role of this university to provide an institutional context in which these people can live, teach and learn.

Let’s take just one example - Classical Scholarship. Classical scholarship is ultimately concerned with reconstructing from the fragments of the past the form and life of those who have lived before us. I am very fond of Cicero’s observation that if you do not know what happened before you were born you will always remain a child. It is beside the point to ask what is the purpose of re-editing the dialogues of Plato, or writing about ancient south Italian pots, or publishing the first translation of a newly discovered play by a forgotten Greek playwright (all of them scholarly tasks undertaken by distinguished members of this University). These activities have no purpose any more than life itself has a purpose. They are examples of the ways in which men and women of intellect think when they are given the leisure to think. Scholarship is rather like virtue – it is its own reward. As the French poet Valery observed, “everything which makes life worth living is strangely without utility.”

I am not saying that Universities should protect the arcane, the impractical at the expense of activities which do minister directly to our material needs and requirements. Of course we need doctors and dentists and teachers and vets, and even lawyers up to a point. And only a fool would deny that the University has a duty to train effective leaders in the workforce and in public life.

What I would say, though, is that scholars themselves have not been especially successful over the past forty years or so at political advocacy, even within their own institutions. Every generation seems to think that universities are in a state of crisis. Universities have always had to fight for money. Unlike banks, law firms, factories and businesses, they do not generate cash but consume it in large amounts. There are few jobs more difficult than that of a modern Vice Chancellor, especially one who has to pretend that a University is a kind of business, through the application of a rather perverse analogy with the corporate world.

So what kind of scholarly community do we want this to be? My own view is that Sydney University is much too big, and a little confused about the modern relevance of the fundamental ideals adumbrated one hundred and fifty years ago by Dr Woolley and his visionary colleagues. In the 1980s it arguably swallowed up too many other institutions with which it had little in common. There are tensions between the vocational and non-vocational schools which are fed more by mutual prejudice than by understanding. And now the University has fallen victim to a public funding system that encourages intellectual fashions, and pressures scholars to be entertainers, thereby destroying their way of life.

So what kind of scholarly community do we want this to be? My own view is that Sydney University is much too big, and a little confused about the modern relevance of the fundamental ideals adumbrated one hundred and fifty years ago by Dr Woolley and his visionary colleagues. In the 1980s it arguably swallowed up too many other institutions with which it had little in common. There are tensions between the vocational and non-vocational schools which are fed more by mutual prejudice than by understanding. And now the University has fallen victim to a public funding system that encourages intellectual fashions, and pressures scholars to be entertainers, thereby destroying their way of life.

It is obvious that tough decisions have to be taken about what and how much we are prepared to pay for, but should popularity with undergraduates be the main tool used to determine which scholarly disciplines survive, and which do not? Where there should be communities of scholars, we increasingly find fragmented alliances of intellectual entrepreneurs and their followers. Should we explore the Harvard model, and establish a Society of Fellows at the heart of the University, with a focused commitment to pure scholarship and research in the humanities and the theoretical sciences? Should we found an Institute for Advanced Study? Ultimately, the future of this university community depends on just that – the quality of the communal life and the success of the University administration in defending it. .

Of course we must weed out the complacent, the lazy, and the second rate. We must be sure of the quality of a scholar’s work before offering tenure. But the model of scholarly activity I have sketched out so briefly - a life centred on thinking, writing and teaching in the company of others with a similar disposition, cannot be rationalised and reduced to formulae. It cannot be measured by reference to any uniform standards. In her Reith Lectures earlier this year, the philosopher Onora O’Neil underlined the damage being done our great institutions by the modern religion of accountability. We should leave it to communities of scholars themselves to regulate their own activities, and at the same time help our political leaders explain to their constituencies why taxpayers should support scholarship. The modern managerial state has done serious harm to our universities – including this one – by encouraging us to measure and quantify what can only be lived. Where we should be allowing people the time and the space to think, we have outcomes, skills, techniques, codes of practice, bureaucracy, with all the concomitant legislation and litigation.

When someone comes to write the history of institutional life in the late 20th century, I think it likely that the cult of the Harvard Business School, the MBA, the idea that management is a science, and that its practitioners can turn their minds to running anything, even universities, will be roundly discredited. I think we have settled much too easily for the notion that citation indexes, bibliometry, and quantitative techniques borrowed from the corporate world can have a useful role in assessing the productivity and commitment of scholars in a university. If he were to appear out of the blue, I doubt that Socrates would get a job in the philosophy department here, because he never wrote anything.

One hundred and fifty years ago, in the year this University was founded, Gustave Flaubert wrote to a friend in these terms. He speaks of art, but the observation applies equally well here:

Have you ever noticed how all authority is stupid when it comes to the arts? Our wonderful governments (kings or republics) imagine that they have only to order work to be done, and it will be forthcoming. They set up prizes, encouragements, academies, and they forget only one thing, one little thing, without which nothing can live: the atmosphere.

Professor Maxwell Bennett AO

At the beginning of the last millennium, the schools of Paris around Notre Dame Cathedral, formed themselves into the first university, under the leadership of perhaps the greatest logician since Aristotle, Peter Abelard. The syllabus which they worked up at that time had three components: the first component of course was theology, the second component was concerned with grammar and logic, and the third component was concerned with mathematics and arithmetic, with geometry and astronomy. This particular syllabus was radically changed in the twelfth century. Because in that century, in Toledo, there was rediscovered and translated into Latin for the first time, the manuscripts of Euclid, of Aristotle and of Ptolemy. The third area of the syllabus, then, concerned with arithmetic and geometry was radically changed by these discoveries in Toledo, and that third part of the syllabus evolved into what was called natural philosophy, or what we now call science. As natural philosophy developed, it gradually began to centre interest on three major questions. The first of these questions, quite naturally enough, is ‘What is the nature of the universe?’ The second question is ‘What is the nature of matter?’ And the third question is ‘What does it mean to be alive? What is the living stuff?’ [someone screams] . . . Talking about the living state, we might have just gone into the non-living state then . . . That interjection of course was planned, as part of my delivery. I said, “When I come to the point ‘living state’, please drop that canapé on that poor woman there”.

Those three profound questions put forward by these natural philosophers were more or less answered in the last century. In 1915, Einstein gave us the relativity theory, which gave us the most profound insight into the nature of the universe. And then in 1925, Heisenberg and Schrodinger gave us quantum mechanics which provided us with the tools for understanding matter. And then, as many of you will know, in 1953 Watson and Krick discovered the nature of genetic material itself, namely DNA, and provided us with the impetus into the growing field of molecular biology, which has been the tool we’ve used to understand what it means to be alive. During that wonderful research century, this university made wonderful contributions of its own. For example, instead of looking at me (those of you who might be doing so), if you look up at the ceiling here, at the wonderful lacework of those wooden structures and take in the fact that you can see that ceiling in three dimensions. The capacity of us and of some other animals to see things in three dimensions is surely a kind of magic phenomenon. And indeed, some of the great physicists at the beginning of the last century, such as Lord Kelvin, said that this was clearly a metaphysical phenomenon, to be able to see the world in three dimensions, unrelated to any physical phenomenon whatsoever. And yet, a hundred metres from where we sit now, in the old Medicine School, the Anderson Stuart Building referred to earlier, Peter Bishop in 1966 discovered the neurons in the brain which are responsible for you being able to see the world in three dimensions.

When you leave this evening, and look up at the clear sky, and see the wonderful grouping of the stars we have here in the southern hemisphere, pause for a moment to think, that there was nothing very tangible about the universe consisting of these stars, until around about 1967, when for the first time, the absolute magnitude of a star was measured here in a building, one hundred and fifty metres from where you’re eating your meal now, that is in the Physics Building. Professor Robert Hambrey Brown worked out a technique based on quantum mechanics, which allowed him to build an interferometer, which went on to give us the first measure of a star – it was the Dogstar, Sirius. And he proceeded from there to measure the absolute magnitude of twelve other stars. And so, for the first time, the universe of stars became something tangible, that we had measurements of, in the absolute sense.

Towards the end of the last century, some contemporaries of mine, who I will not mention by name because it would be so invidious to do so, because I only have time to mention a few contemporary discoverers – these contemporaries of mine, one of them discovered the parts of the brain which control your heart and blood vessels, located just down here in the basal part of the brain. Another one of my colleagues discovered the most important ingredients which maintain the beat of the heart – and that’s just to mention a few of the contemporary discoveries being made here in this university.

Now as I look around, I can see that I’ve lost part of my audience, and I know the reason for that, being a physiologist. And that is I’ve lost you because after that main course, your blood supply is being redistributed from your brains to your stomach. But nevertheless, I will battle on.

Some of you are becoming aware of the fact that we’ve supplied you with particularly hard chairs, and you will feel uncomfortable and wonder why we have done this to you. Others of you – perhaps the majority of you – will be wondering when I am going to stop, so that you can get on with dessert, and hope that perhaps in some ways, it’s as good as the main course. These musings constitute your stream of consciousness, that phenomenon which is most precious to each one of us as a human being. It was much celebrated of course at the beginning of the last century by the great novelist Virginia Woolf and James Joyce. Where does this stream of consciousness come from? What is it, in the workings of our brains which give rise to the stream of consciousness? I can tell you, using a colloquialism, that – we haven’t got a clue. And the reason we haven’t got a clue is that trying to understand the brain is something which is of an order of magnitude more complex than anything we’ve tackled before. The human brain contains around about a hundred thousand million neurons, and that is about twenty times larger in magnitude than there are human beings on the face of the earth. And like human beings, each of these neurons has its own personality: it’s not something that’s been something which has been cut out of a silica chip to make a transistor or something of that kind. Furthermore, each of you might know – perhaps those of you who have more exhibitionist personalities – each of you might know several hundred other people, maybe up to eight or nine hundred other people. Each of the neurons in your brain knows around about on average ten thousand other neurons to which it is connected. Putting all these numbers together ends up with an astronomical number of connections in the brain whose activity is really at the heart of the question of what it is to be human, and whereabouts our consciousness arises.

The question of where does consciousness arise is a wonderful question, which is coming to dominate the 21st century research program. It’s wonderful because, naturally enough, it is intrinsically fascinating to know what it is that gives rise to our capacity to be conscious. But it is also imperative that we understand the way in which neurons activate each other to give rise to this phenomenon. Because as we speak now, the greatest disability facing humanity is not AIDS, it’s not cancer, it’s not heart disease. It’s mental suffering. Ten percent, nearly, of our community, typically of any community in the world, is at any time suffering a profound mental suffering – either deep depression, or one of the great psychoses such as schizophrenia or bipolar disorder. So it’s only through an understanding of the workings of the brain, that we can manage to contribute to the possibility of ameliorating those conditions that give rise to this kind of suffering. And there is great hope that we will soon do so, that is, make a considerable contribution to this. Because on the one hand, just in the last two years, the biological sciences have given us through the Human Genome Project, the identity of the thirty-two or thirty-five thousand genes that allow us as humans to develop and maintain us in a mature state. And the physical and engineering sciences have given us wonderful new technologies which enable us to view the workings of the brain as we activate and go through the various psychological attributes that we have, such as thinking and remembering, and see what parts of the brain are active or non-active, without invading the brain by opening it up or in any way producing any sort of invasive lesion on the brain itself. So these technologies coming through from the physical sciences and the insights from the biological sciences give us great hope for the future.

But what of this university? In the last five years, under the guidance of our Vice-Chancellor and his colleagues, this university has once more become the pre-eminent research institute in the nation. And it holds out great prospects that in the near future, we will make profound contributions, not only to the understanding of nature, but to the understanding of what it is to be human. Thank you very much.

Professor Margaret Burchett

It does get trickier the later you are in the list of speakers for the evening. Partly because some of those neurons have already been redistributed, but also because so many good ideas have already been put before us all this evening already. I’m a scientist, so philosophically I’m a realist – most scientists are. I suspect the previous speaker was as well. That is to say, we consider that there is a universe out there, including this room, that is there, whether we are alive to the fact or not, and that the universe is one of the things which we study.

I’m very pleased to be invited to offer some thoughts on teaching and learning at the university, and to what ends, because of course it’s part of the university’s central function. So what again are the aims and functions of the university? We’ve had this tossed around a bit already, and I think if we look at the history of universities and what we’ve heard from the other speakers this evening, we can say that it is the pursuit of truth and the understanding of the universe in space and time (I’ve got to get in a plug for science here and there) and human affairs within it, and these studies are for the ethical and social benefit of society. In other words, it is, in a very real sense, the centre of the world intellectual property. I’m speaking generically of course, although the University of Sydney has a good claim on some – or at least the origin – of some of that property. Its methods are by way of reason and intellectual investigation and reflection, and of course this involves the transmission of understanding to its students. Let’s not forget either as has already been alluded to, that the major factor in funding in universities, at least in Australia, has been and remains student quotas and estimated student numbers. So whether you like them or not, students are really important. I say that for our Master of Ceremonies in particular.

The development of the university, as Dr Vallance lightly alluded to, is historically a Graeco-Roman, Judeo-Christian, Western European enterprise. But it has several qualities that transcends even these bountiful origins. Going on from what Chief Justice Spigelman said, first of all it is the search for truth, and that is not constrained by any religious dogma or doctrine, although obviously the work of its individual practitioners will be illuminated by their own individual faith. Secondly, the quest for knowledge is indeed universal, international, knowing no boundaries, and there are now of course universities in virtually every country. Thirdly, it follows that inquiry must be free and open; not secret or privately owned. And for that reason, although some collaborative research is done on a commercial and confidence basis, it’s not the mainstream of university research, and I hope with all my heart that it will never become so, because at the moment it’s still assumed that the findings will be very shortly placed on the public and international record, and to some extent, that remains true.

The motto of this university does capture the spirit of it all, which I know in translation, slightly different from Elizabeth’s, as ‘The same mind under another sky’. And it must have been a real cri de coeur for the achievement of the university ideal in this wide brown land; at the time, hazardous months away from the motherland, and on the other side of the universe, just about. And I’ve always found it actually a motto of personal inspiration. So these are the underlying values, freedom and universality, which, whatever faculty we want to instill in our students, pervade all of our work.

I was on the committee of the International Botanical Congress hosted by this university in the early 1980s, and I was organizing the bookshop and the journal display. There were two Chinas represented, which is always an embarrassment, because Australia doesn’t recognize and didn’t recognize two Chinas. So we were instructed to refer to them as Big China and Little China all through the conference: an embarrassment in itself. I remember asking one professor if he was from Big China or Little China. He graced me with a very Confucian smile and said, “I don’t know what you refer to it as in Australia. I’m from Beijing.” I ploughed on. His companion at that moment however was a professor from Taipei, and I got talking to both of them. They told me that politics were the bane of their lives: they felt more at home with their colleagues in botany from around the world than they did with their officials back home. I went some years later to another international botanical congress in Berlin and there were two sides of Germany represented. The colleagues from either side of that wall felt the same way. This is something deeply held by all academics, and something which I think perforce they instill in their students.

So much for the ideal of the university though, it hasn’t always been realized, even in Oxbridge, let alone in these hallowed halls, and often halls with much less endowment than this good university. The question for us now is, is this ideal fulfilled today in Australia, or is it even appropriate for the students that we are concerned with today and for the future? Other questions follow as well, including what course of study should we be teaching; what variety of courses should we include, and where? How should we choose the students, or how will the students choose their universities, and how will we teach them? I can give only some brief thoughts on those matters.

On the question of aims, our universities are in quiet ferment at the moment, something which hasn’t been made very obvious this evening, but is true. There is a feeling that we have (we – I’m a superannuated academic so it’s not my problem) but we the academics feel that we are under an unwanted load of accountability and administration. Having said that, the ferment has always been part of university life. I believe there were riots in the University of Bologna, the first Renaissance university, as I understand it, that was set up; there were riots in New College Oxford in the 1300s, when the students were not happy with what the lecturers provided. Perhaps we’re luckier these days.

But critical scholars, mentioned in passing by Dr Vallance, see a real threat to the ideal of the university as arising from the current ethos of the monetist economists, and the wish of governments to make the universities more accountable. Of course, one has to admit that governments spend a fair bit of their budget on the now thirty-eight publicly funded universities. Not as big a proportion of the GNP as at the end of the 1960s, something that also rankles with academics who are perfectly aware of it, but nevertheless about six billion dollars per annum, which granted is a significant part of the budget. However in the name of accountability, the payers of the pipers have effected a corporatisation of universities already, and under the managerial newspeak, it is claimed that the Vice-Chancellor has become the CEO and is accountable as such, primarily to those masters. The academics are not the corpus of the university, as in the Oxford tradition, at all, but its employees. And it’s certainly true that we are hired by the Vice-Chancellor, and very occasionally we are fired as well. The university, the cynics would say, has really become indeed the graduate factory.

In an article in this week’s Australian on the issue of deregulation of fees, which has been suggested both by the government and by the Vice-Chancellors, and as I gather it, the Business Council of Australia, the authors of the article reported a statement by the Vice President for Enrolment Management (as it’s called) at Pittsburg’s Carnegie-Mellon University: “Good-bye Admissions Director, here comes the Enrolment Manager”. He declared, this one, that the objective of the enrolment process is “to improve your market position”. That’s a far cry from the pursuit of truth, though it might lead to the same thing in the end. This stance is being pursued in the US, at least to justify large and negotiable scholarships to entice top students away from rival institutions. This seems, I must say, a peculiar deployment of funds that could be spent on books or even internet access or test-tubes or whatever.

In August, the Business Council of Australia released its own report which said that it was prepared to put more money into higher education, but they indicated that they thought our performance in recent years has been rather mediocre and, as a condition of funding, they’re calling for “proper performance measures of student outcomes, research, governance, community involvement and resourcing” – every aspect of our operation to the Business Council of Australia, or the government. So the question is, as put by the more radical academics at least, is: can the spirit of free inquiry and teaching persist under these circumstances? Or will it be warped by these positioning requirements?

I personally believe the spirit will survive, and I do this for two reasons which are not reflected by the government or the Business Council. First, the spirit of real freedom of inquiry in the way I sketched before, is in fact deeply held by academics, and indeed by most of our community, fortunately. And in other countries, given the pressures of political authoritarianism, it has gone underground if necessary. But less dramatically, I hope it doesn’t come to that in Australia. The history of universities shows that unfettered inquiry is in fact the only long term effective route to the advancement of knowledge and truth. I’m not saying there are not other sections of our community like CSIRO or other government funded research, or even private company research which contribute. But we are the hub.

The Australian Vice-Chancellors Committee declared its vision of long term reform to the Federal Minister Dr Nelson about a week or so ago, proposing that Australia should be in the top five nations in higher education, and have at least one world-class research centre in each major academic field by 2020. The Minister appears to be seriously considering their funding proposal, which has a number of layers, responding that “as a relatively small country in a world that’s becoming increasingly competitive, higher education will drive our standard of living for the next generation”. He’s probably correct.

Again, not much here about the unalloyed pursuit of truth and more about making a buck for Australia and Australian companies – perhaps Australian universities. However, as Chief Justice Spigelman made clear in his opening talk, the tension between pure and applied ends of learning has been in the universities for a long time, perhaps forever. And in the title of the short history of this university by Professor Sir Bruce Williams, published this year, he says it all: “Liberal education and useful knowledge”. He recounts how the first four professors taught Greek and Latin, philosophy, mathematics and chemistry. Very pure, you would say, although it’s interesting that the first professor of maths, Maurice Pill, was in fact the first actuarial consultant for the AMP and a director for the MLC, even in those early days. “Applied ends” those, indeed, eh?

However, Sir Bruce also mentions that at the time, the Senate rejected calls to start a faculty of medicine, saying that the Faculty of Arts should be better established first, because Arts was to be the prerequisite for entry to the vocational faculties. But when the first professor of medicine, Anderson Stuart, arrived a little later, he put an end to that sort of nonsense. He was destined to become Dean of the Faculty of Medicine for nearly forty years and was excellent at every aspect of university life, including administration and strategic planning and so on. He successfully argued that “it is possible to train minds by technical learning” – not every medico I know would like ‘technical learning’ as a name for medicine, but anyway – “as well as by learning those things for which there is no …. pause … immediate … pause … use. It is not what he knows which makes a man cultured, but how he knows it – the method by which he approaches knowledge.” And women too, I might say, because the Senate, although apparently they didn’t need to, passed a motion saying that women also could come and partake of the university. Or as Raymond Guyter put it a couple of years ago, in an essay called “Truth and the University”: “These two, that is, the practice of the disciplines and reflection on what it humanly means to be committed to them, will come together in a good university. Amen. And I think we can say that on the whole it has at this university.

I would also say, in answer to the vision of the virtual university which Elizabeth sketched for us, that I’ve noticed that people like people, or at least they like jawing, and bending their ear, as happened in the cheese break we had a little while ago. It seems to me that however useful email and chat room tutorials are, it won’t take the place of the campus. It is its atmosphere that makes the difference. Not only that, the Vygotskian educationists say that your mentor in person, or as a book, makes all the difference between what you can learn all by yourself and what you can learn with your mentor at the ready. This he called the zone of proximal development; I think that’s a bad translation from the Russian. The constructionists, or constructivists, go further and adopt a sort of Jungian shared unconscious view, and say that even the shared conscious view of a gathering like this, let alone a tutorial or a lecture group, can produce learning which can’t otherwise be attained. So I think the campus has a future.

I’d say again then, that the spirit of free inquiry will survive, whatever the funding formula, and the slings and arrows of outrageous governments and business councils, ministers and the rest of it, because, in newspeak, it’s our core business, and however we do it, we will continue, somehow, to survive.

Nevertheless, we must not forget the foundation stones of our knowledge and understanding, which might in a newspeak era require a bit of extra help. Sadly, there have been a number of physics and maths departments which have been closed around Australia in the last decade. It hasn’t had a lot of publicity but it has happened. And some classics, philosophy, history and language departments have been decimated over that time. I would ask the Australian Vice-Chancellors Committee, perhaps through our Vice-Chancellor here this evening, to act together to ensure that such studies are properly maintained around Australia, though not necessarily in every precinct. Because such disciplines do give us compass bearings to our studies, (or changing metaphors) underpin all our endeavours in the life of the mind and spirit. As one of my best lecturers in the history of philosophy and education, Margaret Mackie, pointed out to us, putting a value on history for current purposes as previous speakers mentioned, understanding how things came to be, is part of understanding what they are. With respect, then, to the history and current position of this university, which is what we are celebrating here tonight, I would say “Congratulations, University of Sydney, for a splendid hundred and fifty years of work and worth, and best wishes for the future”.

Angus Taylor

Thanks Adam. You’ll be pleased to know that my limbo days are well and truly over. The last time I won a limbo competition was at New College, Oxford, at the scene of those great student riots referred to by Margaret Burchett.

Ladies and gentlemen, my idea of this university, or my hope at least, is that in less than two decades when it’s time for my young children to go off to university, I will be urging them to go to Sydney rather than Harvard or Oxford. The reality is that the great universities of the world are getting greater, more funding, more international, better academics, better research, and better students. For our university to remain great, it must seek to keep up with this elite group. So what has this to do with the relationship between university and business? Well, more than you might think. The best universities generate world class knowledge and world class talent: two of the most important sources of competitive advantage for any business or any economy in the modern world. This simple fact should put universities at the heart of any nation’s economy and its business community.

As the recruiting partner of McKenzie & Company in Australia, a management consulting firm that seeks to attract the best and brightest, I learned the importance of establishing relationships with the world’s leading universities in order to attract talent. Now I was slated in your program to talk about the talent side of the university’s relationship with business. But in the great tradition of McLaurin Hall, I’ve decided to redefine the topic. In fact I learned in this very hall that when you didn’t like the topic, you ignored it and talked about something quite different. So, instead of talking about the relationship between business to university in regard to talent, I want to talk about the relationship between the business community and universities in relation to knowledge.

I believe that it’s the role of knowledge in the universities, the business community and the economy at large that’s more urgent. Why is this issue so important? As a country, we have not yet learned to develop, commercialise and exploit knowledge, to create wealth for ourselves and our universities. Put simply, in newspeak, the knowledge-value chain doesn’t work here in Australia, and we all suffer as a result. Let me explain this with a couple of simple facts.

Fact one: more than half of the economic growth of OECD countries is generated by innovation, which is in effect commercialized knowledge. In Australia, we fall below that average. But, you may say, what about the stellar growth performance of the Australian economy in recent years? Stellar in Australian dollars, yes. But in terms of the leading currencies of the world, our growth performance is much more sobering. It’s relatively easy to grow any business or economy, if you keep dropping your prices faster than everybody else.

Fact Two: Australian business expenditure on R&D is low. We average less than 0.5 % of GDP. The OECD averages 1 %, and countries like the U.S. and Sweden reach 2%.

Fact Three: Most of our R&D expenditure is basic R&D: that is, R&D which falls well short of commercial application. This is the opposite of leading OECD countries. In the US, over 80% of R&D is applied, whereas in Australia it’s less than 50%.

Finally, Fact Four. We have failed to create a meaningful cluster of fast-growing Australian companies tapping into our R&D. In a country as small as Australia, we only need one or two global success stories to make a difference. The Finns proved that with the transformation of Nokia, a telecommunications giant that was once a basic materials company like BHP or CSR.

To summarise, we do wonderful basic R&D, but we are woeful at doing anything with it, and involving business in the process. This is hurting our economic performance against countries that we consider to be our peers.

What does this mean for an Australian university? Put simply, there is little private sector funding to drive R&D in our universities. From a national economic perspective this means that we are missing out on the greatest source of economic growth in a modern developed economy: commercialization of knowledge. It’s no wonder we’re all talking about becoming a branch office economy; at this rate we’ll be lucky to justify a branch at all in fifty years time.

So why is our knowledge-value chain so badly broken? In a few minutes I can’t offer all the answers, but I can offer some thoughts and hypotheses. Firstly, historically, as Australians, we are not attracted to ideas. Big ideas are counter-cultural and always have been. Second, an effective knowledge community is complex, and requires carefully crafted relationships between universities, entrepreneurs, big business and government. In Australia, each of these groups is suspicious of the other, and you’ve heard a lot of that tonight. Governments crow about level playing fields, and use this as a reason for avoiding close relationships with business. Universities see business as dirty and commercial; big business sees universities as detached and abstract. A third reason is that the commercialization of knowledge requires entrepreneurship, another dirty word in Australia. We flirt with entrepreneurship once a decade. We associate it with large corporate failures. In the eighties, it was Bond and Skase; in the nineties Rich and Keeling. We have a younger generation of leaders who have flirted with entrepreneurship, but many have given up trying to attract support and funding in Australia, and have moved offshore.

Should this trouble the University of Sydney? Absolutely. US universities like Stanford, Harvard and MIT receive large amounts of funding from businesses and entrepreneurs, looking to commercialise research to gain a competitive advantage. This allows them to attract the best researchers, the best facilities, the best students. Put it this way: Bill Gates doesn’t hand out millions of dollars to Stanford University each year for love alone. So how do we become commercialisers and exporters of knowledge, creating wealth for all? A few thoughts. As a nation, we need to become lovers of knowledge. We need to develop respect for ideas, we then need to find ways of turning them into something real and something we can sell. We need to develop an entrepreneurial culture, willing to take calculated risks, and back possibilities rather than certainties.

Above all, I think we need leadership from the universities, government big business, and entrepreneurial business. Only leadership [unintelligible] the intentions and actions of a disparate group of organizations and stakeholders to do something new. If you look at success stories like Finland and Ireland, leadership appears to be much more important than anything else. Good leadership infects people with enthusiasm and ideas, and forges massive changes in behaviour in relative short time periods. Frankly, this does not involve leaders from so-called big business sitting on advisory boards and rubbing shoulders with each other, a few ministers, and a few vice-chancellors. This will not make it happen. Corporate Australia is not really the paradigm of entrepreneurship. In my experience, it’s probably the antithesis. Instead we need to involve entrepreneurial business and focus on creating a knowledge-value chain, a knowledge community, that takes ideas all the way through to commercialization, with adequate funding, support from the private sector, and deep involvement with the universities.

It’s my firm conviction that if we remain as relaxed and comfortable as we have been in the past, my idea for this university will not be realized. In this scenario, my generation (assuming we can afford to) will be sending our children to great universities outside Australia. However, the University of Sydney has the reputation, the heritage, the alumni network, the academics and the students, to be one of the great universities of the world. It will need to forge a primary role in a vibrant knowledge-driven Australian economy, if it is to realize this vision.