First week at UNSW
I have had a fascinating and enjoyable first week at UNSW. I am grateful to the many staff and students I have met for such a warm welcome, for the steady flow of information and ideas you are providing and for the feedback to my introductory video message last week. I have received particularly positive comments on the emphasis I am placing on enhancing the student experience, the social responsibility agenda, improving the quality and impact of our research outputs and optimising our external profile.
In the last few days I have attended my first round of formal UNSW leadership team meetings. This includes the VC-Ops meeting, VC Advisory Committee (VCAC), Academic Board and a new VC Deans meeting. I have been impressed by the highly professional approach to running the University, and the collegiate way in which issues are approached. These meetings have provided me with considerable insight into the current status of UNSW. As I had expected, Fred Hilmer has handed things over in extremely good shape, after an outstanding term as VC. I know that all of you are grateful to him for his stellar service to UNSW. This email provides me with an opportunity to offer my personal thanks and admiration for all that he achieved. Fred will remain involved in the University through the AGSM and I know that he will continue to contribute to our success, albeit in different ways. As we start the academic year, the University is in good shape to take on the challenges we face. These are significant, and include the continuing uncertainties about student tuition fees, and the financial pressures affecting all universities in Australia. My view is that despite the uncertainties of the external environment we are well placed to continue and accelerate our positive trajectory.
Against that background, the key purpose of this email is to explain a bit more about the engagement and consultation process I mentioned in my video message to you last week.
I am keen to get up to speed on people, places, activities and achievements at UNSW, as quickly as possible. Next week I will commence a systematic process of visits to all 51 schools across the campus, which will extend until May. This will enable me to engage with staff and students, and take a first-hand look at our research and teaching facilities. These meetings will be supplemented by informal visits, to meet and chat with staff and students across the campus. I am keen to put in place regular meetings with a broad range of students. Last week I had enjoyable and informative discussions with staff in the Faculty of Science, the Health and Safety Team, the Sustainability team, the Student Facilities team, the President of the Student Representative Council, the Records and Archives team, the Superannuation team and the Payroll team. Many of you have introduced yourselves when I have been walking around campus, carefully inspecting the coffee and catering options! So I have already met and been introduced to a large number of staff, who have without exception made me feel welcome.
In parallel with the engagement process I will be launching an extensive consultation process to seek your input to the 2015-25 strategic plan, which will guide the next chapter in the development of UNSW. This 10-year plan will be developed around three overarching strategic priorities: Academic Excellence; Social Engagement; and Global Impact. In each of these areas I will be emphasising our focus on people – on how can we ensure that our students and staff perform and achieve to their optimum, so that we have the maximum positive impact on our communities here and others globally.
I will provide more guidance under each of the strategic priorities in due course, but the intention is that the detail will be informed by your input to the consultation. The consultation will provide a variety of routes for gathering opinion, from one to one discussions and small discussion forums, to online opportunities, workshops, and a survey. My hope is that students and staff at all levels in the University will contribute, and I will also be seeking the views of our alumni and external stakeholders. The intention is for this to be a lively, interactive, energising process involving as many of you as possible, so that we achieve a shared sense of ownership of the strategy that emerges.
To ensure that we are honest about our strengths and weaknesses, and that we are ambitious in our plans, the consultation will be informed by institutional data and benchmarking with peer institutions. By July/August it should be possible to circulate a draft of the strategy for feedback so that we can agree on a final version by October/November and start the implementation of the strategy before the end of the year. I am looking for innovative ideas that will enable us to build on existing strengths and take us in new directions.
The engagement and consultation process does not mean that we will "stand still" for the next nine months. Although the ongoing work of the University is my top priority, I am also working with the senior team to identify a range of immediate initiatives we can introduce whilst we go through the consultation.
As you would expect I am already being asked to comment on a range of potentially controversial topics related to higher education in Australia. Not surprisingly at the top of the list is tuition fee deregulation, but there are many others. For the time being my response on tuition fees is that I am in ‘listening and learning mode’, and will reserve my opinions until I am fully informed. I do however think it is safe to make a few points about my starting position. First, I will be working hard to ensure that a mechanism is found to provide our universities with funding at a level that can make them globally competitive. Australia is a wealthy nation by any international measure and should be able to nurture competitive universities, capable of providing the highest quality education combined with outstanding fundamental and applied research, which is so essential for social progress and economic prosperity. A proper level of funding for our sector will bring enormous benefits to NSW and Australia. Second, whatever solution is found, I will be a strong advocate for steps to ensure that higher education is available to all, based on ability – regardless of gender, cultural or socioeconomic background. Armed with these starting principles, I look forward to participating in the challenging discussions about funding options.
I was fortunate that my first day in post coincided with an inspiring UNSW event at the Museum of Contemporary Art. Ela Gandhi, the granddaughter of Mahatma Gandhi and a distinguished lifelong campaigner for human rights, women’s rights and social justice was interviewed by Laura Shepherd, Associate Professor of International Relations at the UNSW School of Social Sciences. The event, with an audience of UNSW alumni and supporters, was superbly organised by our Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences with the support of the UNSW Foundation. Ela Gandhi’s description of the influence of her early experiences in India at the time of independence, of growing up in an Ashram near Durban, of her work for women’s rights during the apartheid period in South Africa – nine years of it under house arrest – and of the impact of human rights legislation she worked for as a Member of Parliament in South Africa from 1994-2004, was inspiring and humbling particularly as it was described in such a modest way. Laura Shepherd led the conversation and questions with impressive skill and eloquence, and the summary, by our Chancellor David Gonski, was delivered masterfully. I look forward to many similar events, which showcase both the expertise and social conscience of UNSW. On Friday I attended a lunch with Professor Steven Wartman, President of the Association of Academic Health Centers, an international organisation set up originally in the USA but which now extends globally. The visit was hosted by Peter Smith and Terry Campbell, the Dean and Deputy Dean of our Faculty of Medicine and was also attended by senior representatives of our local health providers. We discussed the potential added value of progressing the concept of an Academic Health Science Centre in our locality, bringing together in partnership UNSW, the hospitals, medical research institutes, primary care, and public health organisations, to add value in education and research, bring benefits in improved clinical care to our population, and deliver economic benefit. It is an exciting vision which Terry, Peter and colleagues are working hard to advance, and is key to enhancing our national and international profile in medicine and health.
Finally, I have been enjoying my introduction to Australian sport and culture. I arrived in time to enjoy the atmosphere of the Australia Day weekend in Sydney. I went to the SCG for the first time on Australia Day, and although the Australia vs India one day match was a wash out, it was great to be in that famous arena. Last Saturday I had the privilege of attending the Asian Cup Final and seeing Australia triumph in extra time. It was a fabulous occasion and I quickly become a supporter of the Socceroos. I am a lifelong Arsenal supporter, so those of you who know a bit about UK soccer/football will understand what a relief it was to see ‘my team’ lift a trophy. Next steps for me have to be getting to a Waratahs match, watching the Swans and learning about Aussie Rules.
My best wishes and thanks again for such a warm welcome in my first week at UNSW.
Professor Ian Jacobs
President and Vice-Chancellor UNSW Australia