2021 State of the University: Vice-Chancellor's address

11 Feb 2021


Friends. The New Year begins. The preceding one ends.

What a relief. Because let's face it, it was a year from hell. First there was smoke. Then there was hail. Then a pandemic. Followed by political division.

Fire, ice, contagion, anarchy. I'm certain there's a chapter in the Old Testament about it. Or maybe in a 1960s folk-rock song by the Byrds. These things forced big changes upon us. We had to make the biggest cuts ever to our spending and our staff budgets - by an order of magnitude. Australia's universities combined lost more than $2 billion. And, now that it appears international students will not be returning in large numbers this year, billions will likely to be lost across the sector.

It reminded us that black swan events can and do happen and that when they do, often all that's possible is to fall back on our wits and our values and respond as best we can. We were forced to make some incredibly hard decisions. And are still having to make them. We shed staff and we closed research projects and courses. And I feel terribly for those who have left. We endeavour at all times to be supportive of our staff, and will continue to do so. 

But we have a public mission to pursue, and as a result of our changes we now have a university better placed for the future. It's time to draw a line under 2020 and look ahead. So today I want to give you an idea of what our great institution can be in 2025.

Our duty at this time is bigger than we think. As Australia's national university, situated in its capital, we have a vital role to play in the country's future: nothing less than to protect and nurture and promote our democracy. We live in an era of increasingly unsustainable polarisation. Extreme forms of populism, at times and in places approaching fascism, have gained a dangerous foothold in our world.

They are leading to violence and autocracy, besieged parliaments and mass arrests, trade wars and fears for future peace. Perhaps most seriously, populism is stopping us from addressing the most existential problem of all - climate change.

We are entering an era when populism will have severe consequences for the entire planet. It has to be combatted. To think it will just go away is to wilfully ignore the lessons of history. We have to ask: who is currently looking after the health of our democracy?

Democracy's traditional defenders have been weakened and are often under multiple pressures, here and abroad. Everywhere its defenders are under siege. The public service, the press, the political class - all are trying to grapple with the effects of profound social and technological change. And failing. Their standing has been weakened.

Of the great institutions that have traditionally comprised the ramparts of Australian democracy, only the universities have retained the public's trust. This gives us a special responsibility to show leadership. Why?

Because the job of universities is the pursuit of the truth, and without truth, democracy cannot function and cannot adequately address the great problems facing the world. Facts are being altered. News is being labelled 'fake'. But the problem goes deeper.

The biggest problem in the world today is the undermining of the Enlightenment belief in the primacy of the truth. Without agreement about the truth, we don't debate, we fight.

Our own motto... Naturam Primum Cognoscere Rerum... First, know the nature of things... makes what is essentially the same point. We need to know the true nature of things... We need to know the truth... Because from the truth flows progress. Or as we have seen, from lies flow trouble.

Because they exist to establish what is true, universities are needed like never before. The universities of the world are stepping up and fulfilling their responsibility to champion the truth. And they are doing it brilliantly. The proof is in the fight against the COVID-19 pandemic.

Universities led public health policy. They identified and understood the COVID-19 virus. And they created the vaccines that may potentially defeat it.

The speed with which the world's universities did these things was astonishing. Health policy leaders emerged within days. The disease specialists were achieving successes within weeks. Scientists developed vaccines within just nine months. But it took decades of medical training and scientific research to make these lightning fast successes possible.

ANU is proud of the direct role it is playing. Four of the nation's most senior public health officials - Professor Paul Kelly, Dr Nick Coatsworth, Professor Michael Kidd and Professor Brendan Murphy - are valued members of the ANU community.

At the height of the crisis, dozens more of our staff served the country and the ACT in important public health roles. We loaned them to the nation, without charge, as part of our civic duty. The implications are more profound still.

Because in fighting the pandemic, academics have not only enhanced the reputation of universities, they have enhanced the reputation of science - the crucial discipline that needs to retain, and in some places regain, the world's trust if we are to succeed in tackling, for example, climate change.

Universities are proving their worth. After all, what could be a better return for the world's investment in universities than saving the lives of millions of people?

What could be a better return for investment in ANU than keeping our Territory Covid-free for over seven months? Knock on wood.

Thanks in part to the work of universities, Australia has so far escaped the full catastrophe of this disease - not by accident but by design.

With so much at stake, I want to outline four clear goals for the ANU for the year 2025. These won't be the only goals we will pursue, but they illustrate where the university is heading.

Our first goal will be to deliver a student experience equal to the world's best. And we can do this, if we give it sufficient priority. 2020 played havoc with university teaching. It forced us to innovate and find new ways to teach, learn and collaborate virtually. We learned a lot.

The temptation is to use these learnings to do things cheaper and easier, neglecting quality. Let's face it, it would be easy to make the University into an online supermarket of inexpensively delivered courses and divert the savings into research Or other funds. My response to that is: Over my dead body.

The very last thing we must do at this time when universities must display moral leadership is to disillusion and disappoint our teachers and students and supporters. There's a better alternative. It begins with teaching students better and more intensely on campus as well as off.

Over the last 12 months, I've watched with growing admiration as our students kept on learning without the benefits of being on on-site. They did it brilliantly, adapting and succeeding academically in a suddenly different learning environment. But now they want to come back to campus.

And we have a moral obligation to ensure they return to the best campus experience we can provide. We need to seize the moment and begin to make our campus a far better pace to learn. We need our teachers to be more than just people who stand at the front of the lecture hall or before a video camera. We need them to connect with their students in richer ways.

This might include fewer lectures, and those that we do deliver, will be memorable and sophisticated, utilising technology. Teaching needs to be an exchange of ideas between students and teachers. The lecture need not be dead, but nor should it be a crutch for poor pedagogy. Whatever the answer, I'm certain we will do better than we do now.

So as we seek to improve the student experience, I want every teacher in the university to ask themselves:

  • What is the very best teaching and learning experience you can remember from your own student days?
  • What made it stand out?
  • What provided the WOW! factor?
  • What made it feel like a Pink Floyd concert?

How do you replicate that great experience? How do we make learning into a more intensive on-campus experience? How do we draw students into the campus and encourage them to stay?

What I want to avoid is the idea that university is something you have to squeeze in between your second and your third part-time job, to tick off the units necessary to graduate to get that piece of paper.

Learning at university is not about ticking boxes, it is about thinking. And it's not about accumulating units, it's about being able to solve problems with whatever challenges life throws at you. More than that, it's about getting an education - an education in life.

One great example that has grabbed my attention is a Summer Scholar placement program at the Australian War Memorial, which gives postgraduates the chance to work alongside professional historians to take part in uncovering the history of conflicts we have faced. This is just one example of the opportunities available to our students studying in the nation's capital. So that's our first goal for 2025: improving the university experience.

Our second goal is to conduct world-leading research that can transform society. Such work will obviously require excellence, and this will mean concentrating on those areas of research where we are among the nation's and the world's best. It also has to address directly the nation's vital needs. 2020 showed us the value of patiently acquired expertise.

In a crisis, you need calm voices responding with ideas they know will work. That's what our experts did in 2020 in response to COVID-19 and the deadly bushfires. When looking to the future, you don't know what you'll need, but there are no short-cuts to expertise. And gaining that expertise won't just allow us to react better to threats, it will also allow us to grasp opportunities.

Here in Australia we are creating low-cost power and steel; building new quantum devices we could barely conceive just years ago; employing precision agriculture that will feed the world's population; inventing self-repairing materials that can actively react to inputs; and using quantum computers to communicate at speeds that get faster and cheaper with every passing year. 

This sort of excellent academic work is never easy. It takes energy and commitment. And often it goes unheralded. But that doesn't make it unimportant. What all this shows is that investing in long-term research and training to produce excellence isn't an indulgence, it's a social and economic necessity. And this makes investment in universities  one of the most prudent things a society can do.

In a world as turbulent as ours, who would want to risk doing the opposite? Here at ANU much crucial long-term research is meeting with success. In October last year, Dr Marta Yebra and Professor Rob Mahoney launched the ANU-Optus Bushfire Research Centre of Excellence with the practical goal of developing a revolutionary national system to detect fires as soon as they start, and then put them out within minutes. It's the fruit of 25 years of research.

On a warming continent, more fires will start. This means we have to figure out a way to stop them becoming full-scale bushfires. This means finding bushfires faster and more accurately, and then deploying a rapid response to prevent disaster. If Canberrans can deliver coffee via drones, then we sure as hell can use drones to put out fires. And this work will be undertaken by our new the consolidated ANU Institute for Climate, Energy and Disaster Solutions, led by Professor Mark Howden.

Another huge but surely obtainable ambition is to close the gap in life expectancy between Indigenous and other Australians. In January just past, Professor Ray Lovett and Dr Katie Thurber published research that shows that smoking causes half ofall deaths of First Nations adults aged over 45, and 37 per cent of First Nations deaths at any age. Their findings are a wakeup call to our public health authorities to act.

Another piece of research I like is that by Dr Tegan Cruwys, who has found that loneliness can be as harmful to our health as heavy smoking, and that being connected to others is on average four times stronger than financial security in predicting good health for older people. What could be more relevant right now? It's also another good reason for getting our students back on campus.   

You know, people often ask me what the public gets back from all the money it invests in universities. Too often we answer this question poorly, offering up arcane data, expressed in language the non-specialist finds  difficult to understand. Sometimes even the specialists can't understand it. I believe we can state it incredibly simply: by discovering the true nature of things, our work protects our land, saves our lives, and creates higher levels of human happiness and wellbeing.

It also creates economic activity, prosperity and jobs, which is why one of our targets for 2025 is going to be establishing a unicorn - a company worth over a billion dollars - as well as a pipeline of smaller companies with a combined worth of another billion dollars.

Think of Instaclustr, founded here in 2013 by Ben Bromhead and Adam Zegelin to help companies unlock the power of open source technologies. The company is now worth several hundred million dollars. It's a great example of what is possible.

What I've just been saying illustrates perfectly why our third goal for 2025 must be a renewed compact between  ANU and the Australian Government. As Australia's national university, we've always had a special role in nation building. That role has been recognised by the special grants we receive. It's now needed like never before.

Given the huge and increasingly existential challenges facing the country... 

  • challenges like protecting our environment, redefining Australia's place in our fast changing region, modernising our economy, and improving our social policy...
  • challenges that only knowledge, research and intellectual sophistication can tackle successfully...
  • we are asking the Australian Government to make us a national partner in the creation of a better future for our nation...

There's so much more great research we can do if we have the resources. In the increasingly fraught world and region we inhabit, and increasingly dangerous climate we live in, Australia's national university and its national government are natural allies. They have to be.

The old tensions between the Australian polity and the Australian academy must now be recognised as an indulgence belonging to less dangerous times. The consequences of university knowledge and political leadership not working together are now simply too high.

But put knowledge and enlightened government together and the possibilities are limitless. The nation can be transformed.


The fourth goal for 2025 is crucial. To help transform the nation, we must get the very best out of our people. That means becoming a more equitable and inclusive university of choice. We have to make ANU one of the best places in the world at which to work and study if we are to attract the best teachers, researchers, students and support staff.

Working at ANU isn't just a job, it's a career. In fact it's much more than that. It's a calling.

By 2025 we need to have created a workplace that leads Australia in the modern conditions it offers its staff. Like providing a more flexible work environment - as we did last year by allowing full time staff to work 25 hours per week so they could look after loved ones during the pandemic. And we need to ensure our staff profile reflects the nation more closely, with stronger representation of women, First Nations people and other under-represented groups.

As your Vice-Chancellor, I can't match the financial packages being thrown about across the academic world, but I can make this a better place to work than any of them - by keeping this as a university with a far more human scale than our competitors, by ensuring it is a respectful as well as a lively place, and by offering you the expectation that the work you do will be relevant to society and noticed by the political leaders and national policy makers across the lake. Becoming that better place will be a major competitive advantage for us.

It's also a moral duty. It requires us to become a socially equitable place making our student body better reflect the nation. That means we need to do more to get more students from lower-socio-economic families and First Nations backgrounds studying with us.

Our wonderful Kambri Scholarships will have a big role to play. They are doing just what we intended them to do: supporting students who otherwise would find studying at our university extremely difficult. One of our Kambri students, Hunter, is a Noongar man from working class Kwinana in Western Australia, from a family without a history of university entrance. He's now studying to be a criminologist so he can help people in the community he calls home.

Another is Aled, the son of a single mother in Bunbury, also in Western Australia, who had to take care of his siblings after his mother became ill. He's now studying music, on the way to his dream of becoming a major music producer. Only by truly reflecting our society can we be sure to attract the best intellects with the widest set of interests and send highly educated and trained people to every corner of our nation.  

So we've got a lot to do. I've set out some directions here today. Now I want yours. How do we embrace excellence in research? What research goals should we adopt? How do we teach and learn in better ways and employ technology in the right ways, not the wrong ones? How do we become an employer of choice?


How do we become the university the nation needs and build the relationship between the academy and the polity that will get things moving? This August marks our 75th year, and the launch of our next Strategic Plan. Its direction will underpin our work, our research and our priorities. All of us must own it. And that means all of us must have a say in it.

Tomorrow, we will officially open consultations and I want every person at ANU to participate. You can attend forums, submit written feedback, participate in focus groups or complete the survey. There are many ways to share your perspective. The more of us who participate the stronger the plan will be.

We've gone through a hell of a year, and there are no doubt more tough times ahead. We will all need to do our part by stepping up to the plate and doing our best. There's never been a more important time to be part of the community of the ANU.

Thank you.

*Final delivery may have changed from written copy.