2022 State of the University: Vice-Chancellor's address

7 February 2022

On Monday 7 February 2022, Chancellor the Hon Julie Bishop and Vice-Chancellor Professor Brian P. Schmidt shared their vision for the year ahead in the 2022 State of the University address.



I also would like to honour and celebrate the traditional custodians of the land on which we're meeting, and pay my respects to Elders past and present.

It has always been an honour to meet here, where so many generations of First Nations Peoples have come together over millennia. That's particularly true today, after the long months of lockdowns and our community being kept apart. It's great to be back.

And those millennia put the challenges of the past two years into perspective - although that doesn't mean it hasn't been a very hard slog through 2020 and 2021 for most of us.

To each of you gathered here, thank you for being on campus today. I have truly missed the buzz and life here over the past two years. It is also fantastic to have our Chancellor actually here on campus with us - we've missed you Julie.

Looking out at so many colleagues, the campus feels like its old self for the first time in a quite a while. Thank you for being here. And thank you for the trust you have placed in me and the University over the past two years, as we have tried to steer ANU through the most challenging time we have faced in our 75 years.

The latest challenge, Omicron, has infected a large fraction of the country in a very short-time. Fortunately, it is now on the wane - and I think we can hope for clearer air for the next few months. The pandemic will remain part of our lives in 2022 but it will no longer rule them. We need to adapt to live with COVID as safely as possible, and we will have to stay on that footing this year.

But I am optimistic 2022 will be closer to a normal year. We cannot be the University we strive to be while we're all separated from each other. It is bad for our students, it is bad for our staff, and it holds back the important research and its translation we are entrusted by the nation to undertake.

This campus and its environment empowered me to make my discoveries and I want to ensure that everyone has the opportunity to make theirs. We cannot underestimate the academic environment we are surrounded by, but this environment only works if we are here together.

So I ask everyone to be back on campus as often as possible from today.

I understand some colleagues will be hesitant. And while we can't keep COVID off campus completely, we can make it as safe as possible to limit the chances of us spreading the virus. And we are working hard to do that, including adapting and improving our ventilation systems in our buildings wherever possible, but other COVID measures need your help.  

We need our whole University community to play their part in maintaining a safe environment - and we want to do it in a way that is pleasant and reasonably unobtrusive:

We need everyone to have the highest level of vaccination;

To wear high-quality masks indoors unless it's exempted;

And to get tested whenever they have been exposed to COVID, have symptoms, or are directed to.

We want to make this as easy for our community as possible - so, we are supplying everyone who wants them with a set of high-quality masks, and we have purchased Rapid Antigen tests to give staff and students access to a small personal supply of these tests so you have them when you need them.

Not everyone's situation is the same so we will be flexible and understanding; we will implement sensible strategies to stay safe and remain agile as things evolve.

So, have all our sacrifices over the past two years been worth it?  This is my seventh State of the University address and, because of the spirit and resilience of the ANU community, despite the hard changes we have made, the underlying state of the University is strong. So now is a good time to look to the future.

The sacrifices we have made together, in adapting to the financial realities of our times, have been instrumental in setting us on a path to better times.

Financially, we had a better year than expected in 2021. We ran a surplus, although we don't yet know exactly how much on paper and how much in reality. Much of the 'on paper' surplus is due to one-off events like insurance payments and the Government Research Support Package; or from unrealised investment gains (which sadly are already largely erased in 2022). But a substantial amount of our surplus was from unfilled positions and lack of expenditure on things like field work and travel.

Those sacrifices were real, and borne by people at every level across ANU - picking up key tasks; finding workarounds. Each one of those an act of service to this University, and I thank you.

We have tried to share a bit of this upside with the community in bringing forward our leave loading and deferred pay increases, and this year we are going to fill those vacant positions, and get out into the field and take our work around Australia and the rest of the world as the national university needs to do. And that means we will likely run deficits in 2022 and 2023.

We will need to take on debt over the coming years, but I remain confident we will not have to make any more cuts. We are leaner, but not meaner.

And our sustainability is more important than ever because our purpose - to serve society through transformational research and education - remains fundamental to Australia re-emerging from the pandemic. What we do here, uniquely, is for the whole nation and for all Australians - but also contributes well beyond our shores.

So your day-to-day is not just worth doing, it's essential - for our students who will be future leaders, for our society, for the region and the world.  

Look at how we responded to the pandemic last year, answering the call to service in the most trying of circumstances.

Just recently Frank van Haren in the ANU Medical School and a team of researchers demonstrated that a widely available drug, Heparin, appears to limit lung damage in COVID-19 patients. This is an exciting finding with potentially global impact.

While you probably heard about Frank's work last month, you may not have heard about Kamalini Lokuge and her team's research on the epidemiology of COVID transmission, and their work which was critical in ending Victoria's 2020 re-emergence of COVID and has informed Australia's response to subsequent outbreaks; or Jill Guthrie, Lisa Whop, Ray Lovett, Tamara Riley, Roxanne Jones, and Maeve Powell who alongside AUSMAT and the Commonwealth, were out in the frontlines of Western NSW helping keep communities there as safe as possible from COVID. And it is kind of interesting: because they largely succeeded, involved the community and got them to take ownership, it is almost like it never happened. This is the unheralded success of an averted crisis. But, we remember, and the communities remember.

As the national university, I am proud that we have worked behind the scenes and made countless contributions for our nation - even if they are not always on the front pages of the newspapers.

But there are so many fields beyond COVID where our service is required. We live in a rapidly changing world, which sees the threats of not living sustainably on our planet increase each year. A world where the intersection of technology, data, knowledge, business, and government is evolving as a system so rapidly it's breaking the operating model of human society. Where there is now widespread understanding that prosperity is not equally or fairly shared across the globe, and an understandable desire by the human collective to have lives that are as good or better than previous generations. 

These themes unite the opportunities and threats for humanity. I can easily imagine a dystopic future emerging without strong guidance from thinking across the entire span of what we do at ANU.  There are only a few hundred research-intensive institutions like ANU across the entire globe where humanity's resources are concentrated to do the foundational work on these challenges. We cannot let our society down.

It is worthwhile thinking about how universities work within society - because that too is coming under threat as part of the intersecting set of challenges I just outlined.

As most of you would be aware, I was dismayed, and I am not the only one, by the decision of the Education Minister to interfere in the awarding of Australian Research Council grants before Christmas. Of the four known occurrences of political interference, three have occurred in the last three years - and as things stand, BOTH major parties agree it is appropriate for the Minister to wield this power. Political interference has bipartisan support. I see this as an existential threat to Australian universities. My strong view, a view held by many university leaders, whether they say it out loud or not, is Australia needs an apolitical system to allocate research funding like all other countries similar to us have, and a review of the Australian Research Council and its governance.

Political interference can corrupt knowledge and slow down its creation. It is one of democracy's key advantages over other forms of governments. Our academic autonomy and freedom - which our Academic Board has done so much to defend and its work will continue in 2022 - allows us to pursue ideas across a broad spectrum of possibilities. We don't just focus on what is known or thought relevant or acceptable at the time.  

After all, what would our society be like when the study of history, politics and literature has to reflect the views of the minister of the day? Where would we be if we hadn't been working on climate mitigation strategies for the past 30 years while the merchants of doubt sowed their seeds? What if we hadn't invested in understanding the foundational properties of messenger RNA when it seemed just a dalliance with no practical benefits?

The impetus here for the University is to resist the restrictions of the present and focus confidently on the future. After the day-to-day, week-to-week decision-making of the pandemic era, let's talk about what we can do here at ANU, right here and now in 2022 to take hold of our future.

Six months ago we launched our new strategic plan containing our shared values and ambitions.

We committed to delivering a student experience as good as the best in the world. A whole crowd of new students will join us here on campus next week. Most will have spent their last two years studying from home, and missing many of the experiences that make years 11 and 12 such a formative time.  We have always aimed to have ANU be a great enabler for our students from all sorts of backgrounds. But for this year's students, coming to campus will be a monumental shift in their lives. A shift that will almost certainly come with some difficulties not experienced in years before.

Let's all be ready to show them there is no better place in the world to be studying than the ANU campus in 2022.

And what will those students become? ANU graduates are the problem-solvers and world-shapers of their generation. You can see the newest cohort on campus today in their caps and gowns, ready for the first traditional graduation in two years. What will they take from their time here? The DVC-Academic, Grady Venville, has led a project across campus to create a distinctive set of ANU graduate attributes. These include gaining insight into Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander knowledge and First Nations' perspectives; developing the capability to employ discipline-based knowledge in solve problems that span disciplines; and not just giving lip-service to, but actually giving graduates the expertise for critical thinking. Everyone talks about it - we want ANU graduates to embody it.

To help develop these skills and knowledge, the Vice-Chancellor's Courses will expand to support more students to develop their capability and leadership so they can solve the world's wicked problems. 

Our students and graduates are our best ambassadors. They help connect us to communities near and far. Those connections are vital - we need people to know we are here for them. I often say I want ANU to be elite, without being elitist, and that means not being an ivory tower. It means being within reach of anyone who has the capability to succeed here.

How do we better tell that story in 2022? Lyndall Strazdins is working with colleagues from ANU Communications and Engagement and the Centre for the Public Awareness of Science, among others, on a pilot project to help ANU better communicate our research to the public. And we are focusing on enrolling students from a wider range of places and backgrounds around Australia. The Chancellor's international scholarships are making it possible for outstanding students to attend ANU from around the world, while a new domestic scholarship will provide living expenses for every student who meets a needs criteria. This will build on the success of the Kambri scholarships, announced two years ago at this event, which have already doubled the number of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander undergraduates commencing at ANU.  The Kambri scholarships have happened thanks to the leadership and vision of many, but I want to call out in particular, Aunty Anne Martin.

We have been able to offer these new scholarships in large part because generous donors pledged nearly $22 million to the Support Australia's Students campaign. I thank everyone who has donated as part of this campaign.

Part of getting talented students here and giving them a great education, requires the systems behind the digital ANU. We all know how frustrating a temperamental system can be, particularly our students - digital natives - who expect a seamless experience. The University has committed to a massive upgrade of its digital systems over the coming years. PVC-Education and Digital, Maryanne Dever, tells me we will be launching our new timetabling system for Semester Two that will allow students to self-allocate, as well as change and nominate timetable preferences - all via an integrated web and mobile portal. This will make life much easier for our students, and will make the whole process much simpler to manage by our staff so that they can spend time doing other things where they can better add value.

These are the first of many major upgrades we will benefit from in the years to come - enhancing the security and useability of our digital systems isn't earth-shattering, but it's a place we all recognise we need to improve.

In ANU 2025 we made a multi-faceted commitment to First Nations Peoples, to be a truly inclusive and respectful national university. And in 2022 we can look for all sorts of tangible outcomes. In addition to dramatically expanding the number of students from undergraduate to HDR through our new scholarship programs, we are now starting to create a significant academic cohort.  For example, we have started to achieve real critical mass in Indigenous health, we are forming critical partnerships with Indigenous organisations, with government, and NGOs, all to help create the human capital, the policies and activities, that will drive economic empowerment of First Nations Peoples.

Music is another place where we are embracing excellence by welcoming amazing talent. Six First Nations musicians are now on staff, including William Barton, Australia's premier didgeridoo player at the ANU School of Music. We have also launched the Yil Lull studio on campus, which will support artists and projects in our local region and beyond to be produced.

And we have other great initiatives on campus, with an Indigenous entrepreneurial start-up program to be launched alongside a new Indigenous engineering design studio. Law students will continue to partner with the Kimberly Law Council to provide legal advice, while the ANU Tax clinic is expanding its reach to regional areas and First Nations communities, providing pro-bono tax assistance to those in need.  The University is now participating in the Jawun partnership, which will provide a wider range of our community the opportunity to partner with Indigenous Australia through secondments.

Taken in total, this is real and exciting progress.

In every part of ANU, 2022 will be a year where there should be time and scope to strive for excellence.

We will be looking to nurture talent within our community:

  • We are going to continue to improve on our aspirations to make ANU an outstanding place to work for everyone.
  • We want to unleash the creativity and energy in our professional staff, giving them more time to add value, rather than focus on fixing problems.
  • We will support all our staff with new leadership training opportunities, continued flexible work arrangements, life-friendly policies and supports that lead the nation, and a focus on partnership across all staff members and our students.
  • And we want an infusion of new talent: we have already awarded six ANU Futures grants over the past few months to help bring the best early-career researchers to kick-start their careers.
  • We will make real the new ANU PhD that will transform the doctoral experience and live up to national expectations for the next generation of researchers.  I am looking forward to meeting the first cohort of candidates on campus in April.
  • And in the ANU College of Business and Economics, we are creating new pathways to university, for example through the high successfully novel grad-cert program in partnership with the National Indigenous Australians Agency, which has been renewed for 2022.

We will be looking to invest into our future:

  • We will be putting new money into our infrastructure and equipment. For example.  our new physics building will be a platform of ultra-stabilised laboratories to stay at the leading edge of quantum and material sciences - and continue to be a catalyst for new companies like Lithicon, Quintessence Labs, Liquid Instruments, and Quantum Brilliance.
  • We heard last week how much the Morrison Government values research translation and commercialisation, with a $1.6 billion Economic Accelerator program. The good news for ANU is, as you can see, we're pretty good at this stuff. But I would also say that commercialising research can only occur when we have the bedrock of basic research to underpin it. Every discovery worth money in the marketplace builds on decades of pushing back the frontiers of knowledge. 
  • We have reimagined engineering; establishing the world's first School of Cybernetics, and developing new, forward-looking degrees that will go on to train new types of engineers and computer scientists to solve the complex problems of the 21st century. Check out computer science's transdisciplinary Jubilee Fellowships.
  •  And we have started to transform the College of Health and Medicine, to make sure we help improve the whole of the health system, whether it be here in Canberra, in Australia, and beyond. 

To serve Australia effectively, we need to work with government - and this could be a politically interesting year.

  • Australia's longest running political poll - Auspoll, led from the ANU College of Arts and Social Sciences, will once again provide a quality poll as a benchmark for the many privately run polls that let down the Australian people in the last election because of their systemic inaccuracies.
  • One of our highest-profile services to Australians at the last election was SmartVote, to help people match their policy preferences to parties' and candidates' stated positions. We will be running this service again as part of our commitment to informed democracy.
  • Linking HASS to other disciplines is a major opportunity. We are embracing a range of highly interdisciplinary solutions to wicked societal problems - we see this happening across campus with the new efforts within, Law, RegNet, the Fenner School and School of Cybernetics to name a few. We are establishing a new HASS research support 'hub', merging current capabilities to better support academic development, connecting researchers to funding and partnerships, and of course connecting to the public about what we are doing.

And our horizons must be global. We sit on the edge of a turbulent region, in a turbulent time where superpowers are regularly sizing up the post-COVID world order.

The University continues to be a global focal point for the study of our region, and for the advancement of public policy. Through reinvigorated regional institutes and a high profile external facing program, we will help promote understanding and solutions to the global challenges I outlined earlier. And we are making our unique expertise more accessible to a wider range of people, including to those who are unable to spend a year or two on our campus as part of their studies.

I am energised just thinking about all that great work, and so much more that will go on across ANU this year. This is us leading for the future, serving our nation with transformational research and education.  

The University has endured the hardest two years in our 75 years of existence. But we ARE BACK. BACK to study - BACK to learn the nature of things - BACK to use that knowledge to help the world find its feet again - and BACK to ensure future generations have a life at least as good as ours. I am so excited to be BACK with all of you, and I look forward to facing 2022 with what may require some grit and determination, but also a year where I am confident we can all enjoy life a bit more, and work together here on campus to make a difference.

Someone else who is back with us is our Chancellor, the Honourable Julie Bishop. We are so pleased to have you here and I know how much you have been looking forward to being back here on campus. Nothing better symbolises the return of some normality than having a West Australian here in Canberra. That, and the fact we have in-person graduation ceremonies later today and throughout the week.

Finally, I just want to say again: thank you everyone for being part of our community. A university is not primarily made up of its buildings and its books - but rather its people. And there is no better community in the world than this one. Thank you for your inspirations, your energy, your commitment, and your expertise - good luck to you all in 2022.

Professor Brian P. Schmidt AC


Chancellor's address transcript here.