Farewell ANU

This year represents my 13th as a Vice-Chancellor – Glyn Davis and Peter Coldrake beat me for time in the role. It also represents more than 20 years in senior academic roles, as Dean, DVC and VC.

In addition, I have been Chair or a Member of more organisations than I can remember, but including: Chair Go8, Deputy Chair Universities Australia, Member advisory board ARC, Member of Australian Qualifications Framework Council (during a very interesting time), Director IDP and Chair Education Australia (during formative times) and Director of Open Universities Australia to name just a few. I established what are the two most successful companies in the history of Australia higher education – Online Education Services (which went from zero to a valuation of $200M in 4 years) and IDP which went from almost insolvent to an IPO valuation of $660M last week, in a period of 5 years.

I have had the great honour of leading two very different but remarkable institutions in Swinburne and ANU. I have served as a Vice-Chancellor under 13 Ministers of Education (or similar titles). Despite the challenges, and there have been many, I have enjoyed it intensely.

I came to ANU for two reasons: I am passionate about research and I wanted to lead a research-intensive university, I also wanted an opportunity to try and play a role on the national stage and to champion a future for Australia we had never had – a future built, not on the wealth of our land, but the intellectual power of its people.

Within 4 weeks of taking up the role of VC at ANU, I gave a speech at Parliament House as part of an event called HASS on the Hill. In that speech, I called for an Australia built on the intellectual strengths of our Universities. I raised concerns that we had too great a reliance on our mining industry and feared that the high Australian dollar it was driving would decimate our manufacturing industries and make many of our services, including education uncompetitive. I called for a future where governments invested in high quality research to build Australia as a technological leader.

Although almost all of my predictions came to pass, successive governments were not persuaded by my solution. Instead, we saw a period of 4 budget cuts, mainly to research, over 5 years. Two efficiency dividends, SRE cut and delayed, NCRIS continually on the edge and then topped-up with SRE, Synchrotron bailed out by universities, RTS continually diluted, ARC cut. These cuts, hit ANU harder than any other Australian university.

In the face of these repeated cuts, I and many of my colleagues saw student fee deregulation as the only future for a differentiated Higher Education system. As Chair of the Go8 I was front and centre in the debate. As we all know, we failed. Logical arguments failed in the face of a simple slogan – “$100,000 degrees”. I’ll come back to why that fear campaign would never have come to fruition in a deregulated market a little later in my comments.

Just a couple of months ago I gave another major speech, the Menzies Oration, where I returned to the same theme of my HASS on the Hill speech – that Australia needs to invest in world class research to build a technological future for this nation. Although I doubt my speech had any part in it, both Bill Shorten and Malcolm Turnbull have subsequently said almost the same. Universities Australia have also released their policy for the 2016 election which largely builds on the theme of that Menzies speech – it certainly quotes heavily from it. Let’s hope for Australia that this time we see some action.

As I mentioned earlier, four budget cuts to research in five years does not make for an easy time at ANU. A lack of resources has been a constant theme of my time at ANU. Despite this, I believe there have been a number of achievements of which we can all be proud. Some of these include:

  • A complete refresh of the Senior Management Group of the University, representing the best of ANU and very significant new talent from outside the university
  • Importantly, that group is now almost 50 per cent female, a vast change over the period
  • We established important governance structures, including Academic Board which have served us well in AUQA and other external audits
  • We continued to build the excellence of our research, as demonstrated by the ERA results announced last week
  • We embraced Public Policy as a central theme for the institution
  • We commenced the process of a long term investment in Alumni and the philanthropy which will flow from that
  • We saw remarkable early success with the Tuckwell donation
  • We were not frightened to tackle difficult issues – music, which continues to be a challenge and divestment where, without ever intending to do so, we seem to have played a major role in a movement which now seems unstoppable
  • On divestment, it is clear we were in the right and played a truly national and international leadership role
  • Although it has been painful, we have undertaken much re-engineering of our budget – to make it transparent and predictable, to create a capital replacement program, to appropriately address our investment portfolio and our liabilities around the CSS. All difficult in a period of budget cuts
  • We have commenced the process of a major refresh of our built environment
  • We have made a bold start in addressing the arcane administrative processes of the institution. A job that is far from complete
  • We have invested in great new people who will be the future of this institution
  • We have started to address the challenges we have in medical research, which will be critical to our future
  • We have significantly raised the profile of education at ANU – the residential experience, flexible double degrees, online education are now all associated with ANU
  • Importantly, the sector now sees ANU as part of that sector, not separate from it.

Of course there are important areas where I have not been able to achieve what I would have wanted. I will mention two very significant issues. I have not been able to generate the revenue growth needed to underpin a great university. The ANU model with its high reliance on government research support and a small student base is enormously challenged in the present-day environment. Despite my efforts it has proved difficult to diversify and this has limited what we could do.

The second is around performance development. ANU is an institution with remarkable quality. It is also an institution which unfortunately tolerates under-performance. In a sense, we are too nice, too collegiate, and don’t adequately address these issues. We have made some steps to address this in recent times, there will need to be more.

Resources and driving real performance will be the big tests for ANU.

Let me now say a little about my own future. I am always amazed when senior people retire and they are asked “what next” and they don’t seem to know. “I’ll take a break and see what comes up” – you hear it stated so often.

That was never my intention. In fact, my decision not to seek another term at ANU was driven by a desire to explore a number of new areas. The first of these is reasonably well known, I wanted to have greater time to pursue my research interests. My present research focuses on the role of the ocean in climate change and the prediction of environmental extremes under a changing climate. Without boring you with the details, in both of these areas we have made major game-changing advances and now is an important time to cement this work. I am very confident this area will ultimately be extremely important. Hence, I will return to research and teaching half-time. In the ARC grants announced a few weeks ago, I received a major grant to investigate the prediction of environmental extremes in a changing climate.

One of my other great interests is online education. I have long believed that online education will fundamentally change the nature of Universities. Amongst other things, it will very substantially cut the cost of delivery and, in many cases, enhance the quality. This is why the notion of $100,000 degrees would never have occurred even under a fully deregulated system – the downward pressure on price due to online delivery will be enormous. Universities simply are not equipped to respond. I will be involved, as a part owner, in two companies being set up to work with Universities as online implementation partners. These companies, one of which will operate in Australia and the other in China, will work with universities to place material in a quality online format, deliver the material and quality control the education. I am most excited about the opportunities in this space.

I will also Chair Vernet for the Victorian Universities and I expect to be active in consulting, both in Higher Education and in Engineering. As you can see, I intend to be busy across a broad range of activities.

What one achieves in senior management is very much dependent on those you work with.

ANU is fortunate to have a very skilled and highly functional Council and I would like to thank all Members for the important role you all play.

I have been very fortunate to have a remarkable Senior Management Group, the people who really run this institution – the University Executive and the Deans.

I also want to acknowledge Tegan Donald (the best Executive Assistant I have ever had) and my Executive Officer Liz Eedle for their remarkable support – a great team.

And of course the remarkable staff of the institution, who achieve so much and make this institution what it is.

And finally, let me say a few words about my life-long partner Heather. By choice, she has a low profile. She has been, however, enormously important in all that I have achieved. Her patience, calm, support and love are quite remarkable. Thank you for all that you have done.

With Brian’s appointment ANU enters a new and exciting period. The challenges will still remain but I am sure ANU will overcome these and prosper.

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Updated:  19 August 2020/ Responsible Officer:  Director, SCAPA/ Page Contact:  Director, SCAPA