Successful universities make a successful city

5 May 2020

There is not a single person - in Canberra, in the country, indeed in the world - unaffected by the challenges facing us today. But the reality is, every one of us is affected differently and we are all coping differently too.  

In the face of the global pandemic, many students are facing difficulties, whether they come from the suburbs of Canberra, from interstate or overseas. Almost overnight, the pandemic has left them without a supporting job and now struggling to pay for daily essentials, including rent, food and bills - all while juggling study and often, life far from home. In short, they're doing it tough.

Our students are generally coping incredibly well with a semester that has seen their lives and studies turned upside down. We are proud of them all, as they take these new challenges in their stride. This will be life-shaping for them.

Among them are many international students who are unable to return to their home countries or access their broader support networks. So the ACT Government's announcement this week of $450,000 in urgent assistance in partnership with the ACT Refugee, Asylum Seeker and Humanitarian Coordination Committee and the Australian Red Cross, is both imperative and welcome. The earlier ACT Government announcement about the $20 million Jobs for Canberrans fund is also a great practical initiative, which we hope our students can also tap into.

Both these responses will add to the existing student welfare systems and support measures already in place at tertiary institutions, including the University of Canberra's (UC) Student Empowerment Fund and The Australian National University's (ANU) emergency grant funding, as well as special grants, hardship scholarships and ongoing pastoral, academic and social support.

Community lies at the beating hearts of both UC and ANU - and our international students are a vital, vibrant and much-valued part of our communities. These students help broaden all our experiences and horizons, and not just those of their fellow students on campus. We have always been glad that their choices have led them here to the education capital of Australia, and grateful for the mutual exchange and enrichment this enables. International students make our institutions better, and they make our city better.

And when international students return home, they are wonderful ambassadors for our community and country, and the relationships and networks formed during their studies are often lifelong ones. This builds meaningful ties between Canberra and the rest of the world.

In the ACT we are a vibrant community - from families who have lived here for 20,000 years to many new migrants, including both of us. We need to look after everyone in our community.

And just as it is important to help those in our community when they are down, universities have a vital role to play in helping our wider community when needed most - this includes in recovery and rebuilding after any crisis.

UC and ANU are stitched into the very DNA of the ACT. We are different but extraordinarily complementary: a national university whose hometown is Canberra and which is committed to the capital, and a Canberra-centric university with a focus on the professions. And both with long lasting and strong ties to the ACT.

Our graduates go on to be Canberra's policymakers, businesspeople, educators, creatives, economists, epidemiologists and frontline medical and health staff - just to mention a few ways we help shape our local community for the better. We are acutely aware of our responsibilities to our city, the size of our workforce, the reach of our students and staff, and our role as anchor institutions in this community.

We are thankful that UC and the ANU have been able to draw on our separate and complementary strengths to contribute, both individually and in collaboration, to some of the biggest challenges this nation has faced in many years, including COVID-19.

Our researchers are providing governments with expert advice on how to best counter the spread of COVID-19, on the transition to online learning in schools, and even on strengthening community ties and reducing isolation.

Our economists are advising on resource distribution to vulnerable areas, and how we can best recover once the pandemic passes. Our health specialists, nursing, health and medical science students are embedded with ACT Health, supporting Canberra Health Services in its frontline COVID-19 response. Our staff and students are even creating facemasks to help protect frontline health staff.

Research and teaching are an integral component of our work, but it's the real-world impact of this vital work - making life better in some way - that gives it full meaning.

For most of us, 2020 feels like one crisis coming on top of another. The year turned with the bushfire crisis that also greatly impacted Canberra, its region, and many of our staff and students.

Indeed, while the pandemic is rightly front of mind today, expertise at UC and ANU is quietly coming together in areas such as environment, ecology and planning to support the recovery of bushfire-impacted geographies and communities. This work goes on - it needs our support too.

Rest assured, we will continue to provide support for students, staff and the wider community wherever we can, and to work to face the momentous challenges arising from these unprecedented times.

Because if one thing has become crystal clear, it is that there is only one way we are getting through this - together.

Professor Brian Schmidt is Vice-Chancellor and President of The Australian National University.

Professor Paddy Nixon is Vice-Chancellor and President of the University of Canberra.

This article was originally published in The Canberra Times.