2020 Foundation Day: Vice-Chancellor's speech

3 August 2020



3 AUGUST 2020

Thank you Paul, and I would like to acknowledge the traditional owners on whose lands and airways we  meet today and pay my respect to their elders, past  and present. I also acknowledge and welcome our  Chancellor The Hon Julie Bishop, who joins us today from Perth. We have a small audience with us in Llewellyn Hall  today, and are joined by our friends and colleagues from all around the world on the live stream of this  event. Welcome to everyone!


74 years ago the University was founded as part of Australia's post-war national reconstruction effort. It was a bold attempt to build a stronger, more prosperous and fairer nation out of the catastrophe of World War Two. Our job as the new national university was to supply the knowledge, research and trained people to get  the job done.

We reported for duty, served and succeeded. Brilliantly.

With Australia and the world now in another catastrophic situation as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic, ANU is reporting for duty again.

All Australian universities are proudly playing their part:

  • Leading public health policy
  • Training the health workers in the front line
  • Researching vaccines
  • Advising on the economic recovery
  • Finding the sources of future prosperity
  • And re-assessing Australia's place in a rapidly changing world

At this moment, when the work of universities has never been more needed, but has also perhaps never been more distrusted, I have this message to the people of our community, the people of our nation and the people who serve us in government:

ANU and Australia's three dozen other universities are among the most important assets Australia possesses, and investing in them is one of the best long-term decisions the nation can make, because we will be at the heart of the recovery from the pandemic.

ANU has had a special role in this fight against the pandemic. We have considered it a unique national responsibility that comes from our history, our geography and our funding.
And today, I want to assure everyone--our staff and students, the Australian people and the Australian and ACT governments--that Australia's national university will help lead a new national reconstruction effort in response to this new national crisis.

I want to start by reporting on what we've all been doing in these difficult times.  Across ANU, everyone is working incredibly long hours, responding to the nation's urgent needs. And not just the academic staff. We are a complex organisation that requires many types of expertise and hard work to succeed.

  • And every one of us is an equal and valued member of the university...
  • from the catering staff who keep us fed and caffeinated...,
  • to the arborists and gardeners who make our grounds a sanctuary in which to work and study
  • the administrators who keep us solvent...,
  • the students who give us our very purpose...,
  • and the academics whose teaching and research provides our engine room.

We are a community.

And the efforts of every member of our community have been outstanding. Together we are so much greater than the sum of our parts. Our teaching staff deserve special mention. They've displayed extraordinary innovation to keep their courses operating and their students learning. The students too have risen to the challenge of online lectures, pracs and tutorials.

It's been a tough time.

Some of you have lost your jobs or maybe have a partner who has lost a job. Others have lost housemates because of travel restrictions. And everyone has lost the comradery and the sheer fun of campus life. Universities are places of enjoyment, personal growth and friendship. And on our journey to get back to normal again, these will be big priorities.

The response of the whole university in coming together to look after each other has been an uplifting experience. Our Return to Campus Taskforce has been protecting all of us through their COVID safety planning and advice. People have respected procedures, practiced distancing and looked out for each other.Our Staff and Student Urgent Relief Funds have been embraced by staff members who have devoted cash or cashed out their leave entitlements to the cause.So far these funds have raised around $200,000. I want to thank Professor Matthew Colless for suggesting the idea of the staff fund and I want to urge everyone who can do so to support these great ANU community causes.

As you will all know, these are tough financial times for ANU. The combination of last summer's bushfires, the January hail storm and the COVID-19 pandemic has dug a $220 million hole in our finances. Coping with this income loss hasn't been easy. Difficult decisions are being made, and I've been incredibly impressed by the way our university community has worked as a self-governing organisation to address this challenge together.

We have made our decisions together, democratically-as the decision to defer this year's 2 per cent pay rise to save our colleagues' jobs demonstrated. Everyone has made sacrifices. And we are going to do our best to get things back to normal. Just how long this takes is unfortunately out of our hands.

During this crisis, universities have been among the hardest hit and thus far - the least assisted of all Australian institutions. Despite this, we've played and will continue to play a huge role in the national response.

There are so many examples of great things being done by our community to tackle the virus and its effects. Our Makerspace, for example, got straight down to work designing and manufacturing thousands of sterilised personal protective devices for frontline health and pathology lab workers.

What a great, practical example. But only one of many.

I suspect few Australians realise just how large and direct a part ANU and other universities are playing in the fight against the pandemic. Compared to some other countries, Australia's public response to the COVID-19 threat has been strong and successful. And one of the reasons for this has been the quality of advice our governments have been receiving.

It makes us all incredibly proud, for example, that the nation's three senior-most public health officers at this time-Acting Chief Medical Officer Professor Paul Kelly, and his Deputy Chief Medical Officers Dr Nick Coatsworth and Professor Michael Kidd-are all valued members of our ANU community. They've become familiar faces in the media, but their public appearances are just the tip of the iceberg of what they and other ANU experts have been doing.

At the beginning of the pandemic, when Australia's response required stronger direction, our leadership helped create the National COVID-19 Health Response Advisory Committee that has provided sharper focus to the national public health effort. We have kept finding ways to get expert advice into the decision-making space.

Some 35 members of our academic staff have been seconded to government departments to provide health-related policy advice. 

At the risk of overlooking others' critical work, I must mention the contribution of Associate Professor Kamalini Lokuge, whose experience managing Ebola, SARS and Lassa fever outbreaks around the world has helped the nation get on top of this disease from the very beginning. She's currently advising the Victorian Government on the unfortunate secondary outbreak in that state.

Another of our university members, Professor Imogen Mitchell, has done a top class job running the ACT's response. Such a top class job in fact, that her job is now easier than elsewhere. The modelling and sound public health advice given by our staff has been absolutely invaluable to the nation.

I quote Professor Russell Gruen, who believes that:

"Without the ANU intervention from March onwards, Australia would be in a much worse position and few other universities in the world can boast as big an impact on their nation's response to the disease as ANU has made."

Our involvement doesn't end at the Australian border, because others, like Dr Tambri Housen, have been providing training for the contact tracers in the Pacific and helping deliver World Health Organisation skill programs. Outside of health, many of the senior bureaucrats piloting the nation's economic ship through the rocks of recession are also our graduates, often advised by experts from our major public policy schools.

This is public service at its very best-engaged expertise-proudly provided by ANU. After talking about these wonderful public health leaders, let me mention those putting their research at the public's disposal.

Professor Carola Vinuesa was one of the first to know about the virus through her work with Chinese counterparts in Shanghai. Along with Professor Matthew Cook, she put together a large group of academics, staff and students who have worked tirelessly for months to develop a testing program that has helped keep our labs, our university and the ACT community safe.

ANU epidemiologist Dr Aparna Lal and her team have been investigating using sewage to find new ways of gauging the extent of the virus' transmission. A potentially invaluable global public policy tool. No one can say we are not prepared to get our hands dirty.

These efforts are being supplemented by the work of our sociologists who have been tracking the way the pandemic has been affecting how we live and work and how it is affecting our mental health, our rights and our online security.

And by our psychologists, who are repeating the important work they did during last summer's bushfires, training practicing psychologists on the consequences of long-term social isolation. To the critics of universities, I say the only culture wars underway on Australian campuses right now are those taking place in a Petrie dish.

Of course responding to a pandemic isn't just about medical science. It's about the social sciences, especially economics.

And here once again we've maintained our role as the nation's foremost public policy university. Our senior economists, led by people like Professor Warwick McKibbon, Professor Renee Fry-McKibbon and Dr Roshen Fernando have been using their modelling skills to come to grips with the scale and shape of the economic effects of the pandemic.

Through the IMF and the Australian Government's Coronavirus Expert Advisory Panel, as well as through their extensive informal channels, they have been ensuring that the response to the pandemic has been informed by solid evidence, sound thinking and a belief in global coordination. They have set up a new body of world economists from 22 countries to help the world navigate its way through this crisis. This is ANU leading the world.

Other economics professors, like Bruce Chapman, Robert Breunig, Miranda Stewart, Rabee Tourky and Rohan Pitchford have been helping guide national thinking about immediate and long-term economic policy with ideas to keep businesses and jobs intact and reform the tax system.

And once we've hopefully found a vaccine for this virus, what then? How will Australia's economy, society and democracy be reorganised to reflect the new global realities? Where will the new industries and jobs come from to build this recovery upon? What can ANU and other universities contribute?

As usual, we're looking at these big questions from all angles: scientific, economic, social and political.

Think of the space race. It used to be a two-horse event between the US and the Soviet Union, with little place for countries like Australia. But now the rest of Europe, China, India, Japan, the Arab world and companies like SpaceX have started competing. That's a lot of rocketry being thrown up into orbit and beyond, depositing greenhouse gases and ozone depleting materials where the planet needs them least. Our Institute for Space - Inspace lead by Anna Moore - is addressing this through research into the possibility of reusable rockets with more efficient engines and cleaner fuels.

It's also developing new space-based tools to help farmers more closely map soil moisture to enable better decisions about what and when to plant.

Electric vehicles are obviously another response to limit global warming - perhaps not a surprise I think that! But powering cars by batteries is a lot more complex than people think. It's worth noting that each electric vehicle requires around 1.5 kilograms of rare earths-the same rare earths found in mobile phones and other devices. Today these minerals come almost exclusively from a single country and are usually mined and refined in environmentally disastrous ways. Our mineralogists and mining experts are working on finding new sources here in Australia, and developing cleaner ways of getting them out of rocks and into the world market. Like space research, this is an area of potentially massive economic significance for Australia's future. Our very own Associate Professor John Mavrogenes is providing outstanding leadership in this field.

Our artificial intelligence researchers are investigating big issues like the nature of machine learning and how we can advance a democratic version of AI as an alternative to the more repressive uses found elsewhere.

Our climate scientists too have been watching what's happened to the world's greenhouse gas emissions as economic activity has plummeted, and are busy outlining clean energy stimulus packages to get people back to work when the recovery begins.

In history, our researchers are engaging with Indigenous communities to record and map the deep history of country and culture that exists in the oral and archaeological record. History may seem an unlikely source of future progress, but if we can increase all Australians' understanding of - and pride in - their full history, we'll make a giant step towards the sort of unity needed to overcome the economic, social and political injustices that remain. As a reconciled nation, we will go faster forward together.

On this, we will lead by example. I'm delighted to say that just last month, the University appointed Peter Yu to the position of Vice-President First Nations to progress the nation's ambitions to advance Indigenous Australians and contribute to the national dialogue around reconciliation.

And our Kambri Scholarships initiative is creating a new cohort of Indigenous scholars and potential national leaders. It's our hope they will use the considerable learnings on first nations issues being produced right across the University to advance this great national cause.

With Indigenous Australians comprising only around one percent of students and less than one percent of staff, we have a long way to go in this journey, but we are making progress and are determined to accelerate the rate of change.

How can ANU play an even larger role in the national reconstruction effort and the future of the nation? What goal should we set for ourselves in 2025? 

The period ahead is looking increasingly problematic.

We are walking into a future where geopolitical uncertainty is threatening to place restraints on global free trade, where relations with our biggest trading partner could likely worsen, and where the erratic policy direction of our biggest security partner could cause us added trouble. Large threats to our country's political and economic sovereignty loom on the horizon. In the face of this, Australia will need to become more self-reliant for our security, more diverse in our economy, and more agile in our governmental responses to a rapidly changing environment.

I believe ANU has a special role to play in helping our nation through this uncertain period. It is what we were founded to do back in 1946. And what, 74 years later, we remain uniquely placed to do.

  • We are one of the world's outstanding modern universities-although the only comprehensive one in the global top 50 with an annual budget of less than US $1 billion.
  • We are the only research intensive university outside a metropolitan area in Australia. And four out of five of Australia's university-based Nobel Prizes were won here.
  • Our student cohort is uniquely drawn from all of our nation's states and territories. And once our students leave us they often end up serving and running the nation too, with a good proportion becoming Australia's leading politicians and senior public servants.
  • Our policy expertise makes us a global powerhouse for understanding the Asia-Pacific Region.
  • Our economists helped shape the modern, open economy we have today.
  • And our expertise in the education of public servants, diplomats and political leaders continues to contribute to making Australia a highly influential middle power. Just look at the CVs of some of our nation's leading policymakers.

This role comes from our history, our geography and our national mandate. As I mentioned at the start of my speech, our founding purpose was to reconstruct our nation in a time of global turmoil. It makes us different from the others. It gives us special significance and value to the nation.

Change is inescapable, especially in the world of universities. But as things continue to change, we don't want to become a national university in name only. We are determined to play as big and useful a role as we possibly can in Australia's evolving story.

This moment of national crisis, which calls for a new era of national reconstruction, makes this the opportune time to restate the importance of the ongoing relationship between Australia and its national university. We're determined to keep doing what we were founded to do: provide the knowledge, research and trained people to help the nation rebuild, remain united and prosper. We know we can provide the education and research that the nation needs to meet its challenges, at a standard consistent with the world's best.

  • We can work with the Commonwealth to co-design and co-fund the expertise, research, policy advice and graduates the nation needs...
  • We can work with businesses to create new companies able to exploit economic opportunities in a globally competitive way...
  • And we can maintain an academic program that researches, cultivates, curates and disseminates the broad culture, history and values that underpin our democracy...

To do that, we need to be a university that is resistant to global economic and geopolitical shocks. A university highly internationalised in its education, research and outreach. A university that can provide Australia with truly independent advice.

In other words, an Australian national university in every sense.

Such a university proved invaluable to the first national reconstruction effort. It will prove invaluable in its second.