Vice-Chancellor addresses National Press Club

31 August 2022
Our 10-year strategy and the important role of universities
Vice-Chancellor and President, Professor Mark Scott AO, addressed the National Press Club today, speaking about the University's new 10-year strategy and the important role higher education plays in our community.

The Vice-Chancellor's speech, as delivered today at the National Press Club, is published below. You can watch his address on ABC iview

I acknowledge that we meet today on the ancestral lands of the Ngunnawal people, the traditional custodians of this land. I pay my respects to elders past and present, and those who have cared for and continue to care for country.

It’s great to be with you.

The University of Sydney is Australia’s oldest university. We took in our first students in 1852 and just yesterday released our aspirations for the decade through to 2032, by which time we’ll be closing in on the end of the University’s second century.

In considering our future, we humbly acknowledge that for hundreds of centuries before the University of Sydney opened its doors, generations of First Nations peoples have been exchanging knowledge on the ancestral lands on which the University’s campuses and facilities now stand. And as we create a university for the future, we aim to extend and build upon this prior knowledge.

Today I want to give you a sense of our vision for the next decade.

I have been Vice-Chancellor at Sydney for a little over a year now.

For me, for many months - as it was for many of our students and staff - life at the University of Sydney took place remotely, on screen from home. I have to say that the novelty of a 60-second commute to the desk for my first Zoom meeting of the day quickly wore off.

But this year we are back on campus in force. We still have many international students unable to be on campus due to local lockdowns and limited access to affordable flights. Yet we have many more who’ve made it back for second semester. The University is once more alive and humming with the energy of students and staff. 

Working for social good

By global standards, Australia’s key research universities are large. Sydney’s scale often surprises my overseas counterparts.

While some of them might have an academic community of 8,000, Sydney’s stands at almost 80,000. Places of learning not only in Camperdown, but in Westmead, North Sydney, Camden, Nepean, Lismore, Dubbo, Orange, Narrabri, Broken Hill and elsewhere.

The comprehensiveness of Sydney’s areas of study - more than 400 - is also noteworthy. Few of the leading global universities offer breadth of that scale.

From philosophy and anthropology to nanotechnology and astrophysics. A sweep of specialist disciplines in medicine and health; science and engineering; business and law; music, arts and social sciences; architecture, planning and design.

Such expertise abounds everywhere, and this gives our students a remarkable range through which to explore their interests and discover new ones.

What unites this community of scholars is a desire to do work that acquires meaning through its impact, creating social good, bringing about positive change.

Transformational education. Protecting and upholding freedom of speech as core to our purpose. Expanding knowledge and understanding, through research and teaching – underpinned by free enquiry and the highest ethical standards.

Our academics, as well as our professional staff, want to work in a place dedicated to learning and discovery, to the development of our future leaders, to research that can build a better world, searching for solutions to the great global challenges.

During the pandemic, the speedy and highly collaborative work of deep disciplinary experts, from across the Australian university sector, absolutely shone.

Global recognition for our Professor Eddie Holmes who in January 2020, with colleagues in Wuhan, posted the first genetic information on the COVID-19 virus, that enabled vaccine manufacturers across the world to go to work.

As we sought to rapidly protect the nation, our experts in vaccinations like Professor Julie Leask became highly valued advisors. Professors Maree Teesson and Ian Hickie led national conversations on the impact of localized lockdowns and isolation on mental health. Our Sydney Policy Lab ran a series of forums to start the national conversation on how best to open up again to bring our communities back to life.

Yet this collective quest, to apply academic energies to the common good, goes far beyond the University of Sydney.

Right across the tertiary sector, teams are engaged and dedicated to the great global issues of our time: this pandemic and the ones that will inevitably follow, climate change, achieving the transition to net zero, inequality, aged care. Diseases caused by humanity and those diseases that have, to this point, proven beyond the ingenuity of our finest minds.

Time and again, the striking breakthroughs come by gathering teams of people with different disciplinary strengths, insights and research approaches to freshly expand our ways of seeing, thinking and understanding. In the marketplace, in public policy, in the healthcare system.

And as Australia moves to a post-carbon world, our shared strength and prosperity will shift as well. We’ll be less dependent on products from the earth, more on products of the mind, the creativity and inventiveness of our people.

Our universities are preparing the next generation of leaders to take us through the great challenges ahead.

What is the best way to we can support their curiosity and learning and create the great environment of teaching and research where they can flourish? To strengthen our universities and the contribution they can make to the strength of the nation and its citizens? 

Building support, better engaging the public

The university sector has seen successive governments, over decades:

  • cut the value of funding provided per student
  • transfer more and more of the total costs to students
  • fail to fund the real cost of delivering research projects awarded grants by their own funding councils
  • abolish investment funds established to build research and teaching infrastructure in areas of national priority
  • and too often dismiss the importance of basic research as the vital precursor to later discovery, translation and commercialisation.

Government commitment to tertiary education has been steadily reduced, yet there has been relatively little reaction to this beyond the university gates.

Why the silence?

Why have universities not been defended as central to our security, prosperity and well-being? Places where our future leaders and our future entrepreneurs and inventors will test their ideas and seed their creativity? Why aren’t universities recognised as arguably the most vital social institutions to help secure our future in a world beset by uncertainty?

There have been loud, sometimes hostile critics, certainly. But perhaps more remarkably, there has still prevailed a broader passivity. A silence instead of support from those millions of Australians who have been to university, or whose children or grandchildren go to university, or who would like to see those close to them given this opportunity of a university education.

That’s a challenge that we must meet. At Sydney; at all our universities. We need to tell our story better. And we need a better story to tell.

Despite our achievements, we in the sector still have a lot of work to do to build support, better engage the public in the argument for our role. To strengthen bonds with the communities that we serve.

We’ve been reflecting on these issues at Sydney, while developing our strategy for the next decade. I know other Vice-Chancellors are wrestling with them as well.

What will we want the University of Sydney to be known for by 2032? What needs to change to not just strengthen the university and the communities it serves, but strengthen understanding both of the University’s vital importance to Sydney itself, and its achievement as a great global university. 

Our strategic focus over the next decade

Let me take you through our aspirations and the work needed to fulfil them. Our strategic focus over the next decade at Sydney.

Firstly - we are committed to ensuring our student-focused education is a transformational experience.

Online teaching through COVID lockdowns underlined for us just how compelling in-person learning is for our students, particularly our undergraduates.

At Sydney, our staff worked tirelessly online, but the in-person teaching experience - learning together - adds something vital and unique.

The reason students had a fear of missing out was that they were missing out. Not specifically what goes on in the classroom, but also what goes on around it, those times and places where social life takes place and social support is gradually established. Where - often serendipitously - friendships, networks and links that last a lifetime are forged. When connections are made with guides and mentors, potential sources of continuing wisdom and advice over the decades ahead.

Yet at Sydney, and at many other universities as well, the sense of university as a place you want to spend as much time as you could, has - even before COVID - been increasingly challenged.

We are committed to ensuring our student-focused education is a transformational experience.
Professor Mark Scott, Vice-Chancellor and President

Many of our students have to work long hours to support themselves while studying. And the convenience of a lecture that’s available online often seems a good enough reason to not attend in person.

Our students are giving us what might turn out to be the most free and precious years of their lives. So we need to make the transformational student experience an absolute priority. To ensure that great teaching is not only expected but required. And that great teachers are as revered and rewarded throughout our community as our great researchers.

I suspect that some of the disengagement of those who should be strong supporters of higher education derives from an apprehension that we’ve lost sight of students, especially domestic ones, as we pursue the income the University needs to meet the full cost of teaching and research.

Universities are under continual pressure to find ways to fund themselves.

I would say “and it was ever thus” - except that it is not quite true.

When I was an undergraduate at the University of Sydney in the 1980s, many Australian universities received 90% or more of their funding directly from the Federal government.

Today at the University of Sydney, direct Federal funding accounts for less than 30% of total annual income. The rest comes from domestic and international student fees, partnerships with industry and state governments, competitive grant schemes and the remarkable philanthropy of our donors. International students in particular, have played a vital role in providing not just key researchers at a graduate level, but also together, providing the funding income that underpins much of the national research effort.

It is a very challenging eco-system and I welcome the Federal Government’s willingness to review it as part of a new accord with the sector.

But that funding pressure is no excuse for not fulfilling the promise that a university education should present to today’s students.

Those students will graduate into a world of accelerating change, with technology constantly rewriting the nature of work and innovation driving the creation of new sectors and demands for new skills. A very dynamic environment that represents a great opportunity for a university like Sydney.

We want graduation to be seen as a departure point, not a destination for our students, the first milestone in a lifelong partnership in learning with Sydney University.

We want to clearly say to our graduates that you will always be members of the University of Sydney community. We want you back for graduate degrees, for short courses, for micro-credentials, for weekend intensives, for alumni refreshers.

And we want to ensure that during those undergraduate years we give our students an experience that makes them want to come back. Because it was a transformational experience.

Back for further education that ensures they’ll remain career competitive - keep up to date by developing new skills, pivot in response to disruption, or take advantage of new opportunities as they emerge. To stay on top in a world where uncertainty is perhaps the only certainty.

A community that thrives through diversity

Which takes us to a second pillar of our 2032 strategy - to create a community that thrives through diversity.

Over the past year at the University, we’ve talked a lot about the makeup of our student intake.

It is not easy to win a place to study at the University of Sydney. We have, overall, the state’s highest entry standards. The most number of first preferences.

But dig deeper, you can see that university attendance seems inevitable for some students, less so for others. For those from certain schools, certain postcodes, the road to university is more travelled - and it has made all the difference to their lives.

But what of those from less privileged backgrounds? As far back as 1879, Charles Badham, Professor of Classics at Sydney University and a great believer in bursaries, said “This university is not only for those who have private means or professional connections - it is for the people.”

That remains true. Yet we have not done as well as we would have liked to attract, support and retain students from low socio-economic status suburbs, disadvantaged schools, from families without a history of university attendance.

Why not?

Firstly, the most widely used university selection process for school leavers - the ATAR - shows the close correlation between socio-economic status and educational outcomes. Fewer students from disadvantaged backgrounds get the required ATAR score or meet our other prerequisites. But those ATAR scores are informed by many things beyond academic ability - like the financial investment that has been made in education, access to mentors, tutors and role-models, the ambitions of families and the expectations of student cohorts.

The opportunities that come from studying at a university like Sydney are extraordinary. Our graduate employment levels are strong and up with the best in the world according to the QS Graduate Employability ranking.

So many of our students move on to great careers in research and innovation, in corporations, public service and not-for-profits and often end up at the very top of their professions, here and internationally. We have over 800 different partners providing student placement opportunities. For over a century and today as much as ever, doors across the nation and around the world, open for Sydney graduates.

Education is the most powerful tool yet discovered to overcome disadvantage and inequality. Education changes lives.

But if we are not vigilant and not committed, lack of educational opportunity can entrench disadvantage and inequality for generations to come.

So as part of our 2032 Strategy, we will look to build our support infrastructure to enable at least 1,000 additional students from low SES backgrounds and disadvantaged schools to study with us.

We’ll achieve this through more generous financial scholarships throughout degrees supported by the University and our generous community of donors; accommodation support for those who come from far away; more detailed and comprehensive mentoring and support programs. 

Education is the most powerful tool yet discovered to overcome disadvantage and inequality. It changes lives. But if we are not vigilant and not committed, lack of educational opportunity can entrench disadvantage and inequality for generations to come.
Professor Mark Scott

We’ll engage closely with schools to help us find those students with high potential for whom a Sydney experience would represent a transformational opportunity.

When I was a student at Sydney, many of the poorest suburbs in the city encircled the campus. That is no longer the case.

And we’re no longer just at Camperdown.

We’ve been doing world class research and teaching with our medical and health faculty at Westmead for more than four decades now. Almost 25% of our entire health and medical research effort flows from our campus at Westmead - an enduring commitment to our fastest-growing suburbs in Sydney far from the city campus where we first began.

In the decade ahead, we will see a significant boost in courses across a range of disciplines offered at Westmead, targeting high ability students seeking degrees in areas of high employment demand in Western and South-Western Sydney.

This commitment to diversity extends beyond our student intake to our staff as well.

We’re intent on improving our cultural diversity and gender equality, to build a staff community that better reflects the communities and city we serve. By bringing in broader perspectives, experiences and ideas, we will better serve those communities.

And it will help us make better decisions, provide a range of role models and create an environment where all can flourish. 

Research as a catalyst for innovation and change

Another aspiration for 2032 is to deliver research that is a catalyst for innovation and change that improves lives across our nation. We want to support our researchers to be consistently excellent, tackling the greatest challenges, delivering for the common good.

Over the past decade we’ve focused on gathering teams from different disciplines to drive innovation in research. And that will continue in the decade ahead as we look to build more cross-disciplinary research centres.

Much of this important work will come in partnership - across the university, with other Australian universities and research institutes, with industry, with philanthropic partners, with great global universities.

We have clarified our aspiration to be a truly world class university.

Our ability to work together, to foster partnerships, to recruit and retain great researchers, to be able to partner with great researchers wherever they are, will be key to fulfilling that aspiration.

Our new Sydney Biomedical Accelerator will be a centrepiece of our medical research commitment. The Accelerator has been funded by the largest ever gift to universities in NSW from the Susan and Isaac Wakil Foundation, which has generously donated more than $65m to medical research and teaching at Sydney.

Supported by the NSW government, working with Royal Prince Alfred, the great public hospital, we’ll be partnering with our innovative digital neighbours in Tech Central with teams extending to our experts at Westmead.

We are seeking to accelerate the time from research insight through experimentation to practical impact in the lives of patients. Fast track scientific discovery.

The research will focus on the study of the processes of life, genetic and environmental factors related to human health and the prevention and treatment of disease. Targeted research will lead to more breakthrough drugs and devices, more precision in diagnosis and treatment, AI-enabled treatment and discovery and consumer-driven digital health.

We believe we have the opportunity to be a world leader in biomedical research, commercialisation and translation.

We know those who work with us at the University remain the vital source of creativity, innovation and endeavour.

This year, over 6,000 members of our community engaged in the consultation process on developing the University’s aspirations for 2032. Overwhelmingly, they want the University of Sydney to be at its best.

But we know we owe them a better place to work, and a place that works better.

The agility and speed of our staff to move so much teaching online in such a short period of time at the onset of COVID was a powerful rejoinder to outdated stereotypes about academic inflexibility. Our teams met that challenge quickly, with diligence and professionalism.

But a large, complex university can be a breeding ground for red tape and bureaucracy that hinders, rather than helps.

If we are to be a world class institution, we need world class performance and engagement, we need delivery on commitments, we need to be accountable for how we deliver. We must continue to earn our place through the evident quality of our work.
Professor Mark Scott

I’ve had people talk enthusiastically to me about their jobs, their belief in the University ideal, only to then see that enthusiasm diminish somewhat as they tell me about meaningless bureaucratic processes that take time away from significant work.

Organisations that truly perform at a high level have high levels of trust and high levels of accountability. Having too little of both profoundly affects our performance. Too little trust generates rules, regulation and paperwork.

But trust goes hand in hand with accountability. If we are to be a world class institution, we need world class performance and engagement, we need delivery on commitments, we need to be accountable for how we deliver. We must continue to earn our place through the evident quality of our work.

I am confident many of the best ideas to achieve these aims will come from the dedicated teams already working with us.

I hope part of this will lead to a sensible and constructive resolution to the current industrial negotiation at the University. Any negotiation needs to be a negotiation: give and take.

We need to address the high levels of casualisation in the university workforce, with its potential impact on students, staff and teaching.

We want to ensure that Sydney staff remain the best remunerated in the country, so we can deliver on our shared aspirations, and focus appropriately on teaching being just as important as research.

And we want to be proud of what we can achieve together, working in an environment of high trust and accountability.

Universities integral to meeting common challenges

As I said on the election of the Albanese government, universities need to be in the solutions business. Yes, there are great challenges facing the sector. We need to improve the funding model and drive national investment in research.

Much about higher education funding and practice today remains deeply anchored in the Dawkins reforms of the mid to late 1980s. Three decades on, I encourage Minister Clare’s openness to engage with big picture thinking and substantive reform.

What is most important though, is that the sector, and big research universities like Sydney, are seen as integral to meeting our common challenges, like the jobs and skills shortage to be investigated at tomorrow’s summit.

Great changes in Australia’s economy and labour market have already taken place.

More than half of the new jobs created over the last 30 years can only be held by people with a post-school qualification, while 9 in every 10 new jobs expected in the next 5 years will require these types of awards.

In fact, when you look at the constellation of issues we contend with - climate change, energy transition, pandemics, regional security, closing the gap, bio-med opportunities, the resilience of democracy, the search for evidence and truth - universities have so much to offer. With expertise at hand, and willingness to partner in the cause of discovery, insight and impact we can be great partners at the table.

I’d like those at tomorrow’s Jobs and Skills Summit to consider not just the immediate challenges, for which migration will surely be one answer, but those challenges Australia will contend with a decade from now.

Universities help create new jobs. We know the government recognises this, as the presence of medtech and critical technologies in the National Reconstruction Fund attests.

While we’re very proud of our contributions to the workforce in teaching, law and the health professions, many of our current students see themselves as entrepreneurial, not so much getting a job, as creating jobs.  

Today’s 11-year-old might aspire to work at Gelion, started by our own Professor Thomas Maschmeyer, employing 70 people in Western Sydney. A business working on the potential of lithium batteries to power electric transportation - cars, trucks, and planes.

Or Dewpoint, launched last week at the University of Sydney, focused on sustainability through cooling buildings by collecting atmospheric water with zero energy and no moving parts.

For the Gelions and Dewpoints and countless others like them to be thriving a decade from now, today’s primary school students will need access to a top quality tertiary education. 

I am confident that the sector will deliver; confident too about what the University of Sydney—Sydney’s university, a great global university, Australia’s oldest university—will offer.
Professor Mark Scott

Let’s not get to 2032 and realise, only in the clarifying light of loss, that we should have done more to strengthen our universities. Invested more in our future leaders and the shared and better future they will build.

There are many levers available - addressing the funding challenges for universities is one of them.

Universities, too, have work to do. Universities are powerhouses of research translation and commercialisation. Since 2014, the University of Sydney has created 36 start-ups based on staff IP. In the year before the pandemic hit, we created nine, more than twice the number of any Australian research institution, including the CSIRO. We in the tertiary sector must look at how to better use the critical IP developed by our universities to create jobs and bring solutions.

We face a century of endless complexity.

Where will we find those to lead us through it?

They are in our universities now. And in the years to come.

I am confident that the sector will deliver; confident too about what the University of Sydney - Sydney’s university, a great global university, Australia’s oldest university - will offer.

I’ve spoken today about our aspirations for the decade ahead which will shape the University of Sydney. We’re clear about where we want to be in 2032. We know what we have to do to get there, and we have backed those aspirations with a program of action that will ensure we do.

Not every challenge will be easily overcome, nor every plan completely succeed. We’re up for the challenge. We know it is possible. And important. And that our best years lie ahead.

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