Faculty of Business and Economics Foundation Dinner 2019 Guest of Honour Speech

Vice-Chancellor Duncan Maskell,  Great Hall, National Gallery of Victoria,  Thursday 7 March 2019

Former Chancellors Elizabeth Alexander and Alex Chernov, distinguished guests, ladies and gentlemen:

I am deeply honoured to be asked to speak tonight here in this august and I must say versatile venue. Last time I was here was for one of the Friday Nights at the NGV, when this space had pop-up bars and food outlets, and a DJ laying down some beats outside the back door.  I fear that I will struggle to be as entertaining as that here this evening.

Before I begin, I want to acknowledge the elders past, present and future of the Wurundjeri people and the Boonwarrung people of the Kulin nations, two peoples who have cared for the land and water on both sides of the Birrarung for tens of thousands of years.

As someone who landed in Australia less than 4,300 hours ago I realise that I have a lot to learn from cultures that have been here so very long, It is a particular honour to be able to make that acknowledgement on behalf of the University of Melbourne, and can I record that during my time as Vice-Chancellor, it will be an important priority for me to honour and extend the work towards Reconciliation undertaken here over the past decade and more.

As I prepared for tonight, talking to Charles Goode and others, it became clear to me that it has become fairly traditional to talk about yourself and even your family during this particular speech. While I have met many of you already, there will still be some, or perhaps even most, of you who do not know me so I am prepared to do that.   But I should warn you: I do not of course have the early settler or more recent migration stories of some of your past speakers, or indeed of many of you in the audience.

Sarah and I only arrived here last September, but arrive we did, and contrary to what you might think, we did not migrate as refugees from impending Brexit-induced national self-harm.   We came here so that I could take up the exciting challenge of leading a great University so that it becomes even better, striving for brilliance on a world stage, in a thriving country which itself has so much to offer the world.

Here at the NGV can I point out the great arts scene of Melbourne was a real drawcard for us. And as a keen sports fan, this city is a sensational place to live.

But how did I get to be in this amazingly fortunate position – where I can enjoy the sports, the arts and more importantly lead a great university?

The one-liner to answer that question is a modicum of ability and a lot of hard work, but underlying all of that is the transformative power of education, the value and impact of being given the privilege of a proper education on someone like me.   I hope that this is a subject that interests all of us tonight.

I was born and brought up in Barnet, a town on the edge of North London. In fact although it is now part of London, when my grandad grew up he could walk southwards from Barnet across Finchley Common to go courting my future grandmother.

My grandad served in the First World War as a stretcher bearer in the Royal Army Medical Corps.  I found his mundane little war diary, but hidden in there, amongst the records of his winnings and losses at cards and being let off to go back to various towns in Flanders for a few beers, was the fact that he was at the Third Battle of Ypres. He was gassed, which affected him for the rest of his life.  He returned and became the greenkeeper at the local golf course, which incidentally involved cutting the grass with a scythe!  He married my grandmother, who worked in a laundry.  They lived in a two-up two-down house with a tin bath and an outside toilet, which I can remember them still being in in the 1970s. In these cramped conditions they had four sons and one daughter, with my dad being the youngest.

Dad had an eventful childhood, lived through the Second World War, with breaking limbs and becoming seriously ill with an infectious disease, but he was pretty intelligent.  Everybody took the 11-plus exam in those days to see if you could get in to Grammar School. He passed, but couldn’t attend as his parents couldn’t afford the school uniform.  One would hope that this kind of inequality of opportunity had been consigned to the dustbin of history, but I fear that there are parallel situations to this happening to this very day, in the UK and in Australia.

My father therefore left school at 14 without the education that he undoubtedly would have benefitted from, and became apprenticed to a plumber, and so he learned how to work lead.  He also learned how to climb very long ladders to work on church roofs in all conditions.  He was lucky not to injure himself when he inevitably fell off, but not so lucky in that he caught pneumonia while working on a church roof and nearly died.  We all occasionally breathe a secret world-weary sigh about OH&S, but my word how necessary that legislation has been in improving conditions for people like my dad.

My mum came from a family that was half Scottish. A branch of her family had a road haulage business, but it was nationalized along with much of the transport sector after the Second World War, so my grandad on that side became a lorry driver for British Road Services.  His wife, my grandmother, was the dinner lady in a local school.  My mum worked as an audio-typist in the radiology department at the local hospital but had to give up her job when she had me!  I remember her having a metal box with slots in the lid, into which she fed spare coins so that she was sure of having enough money to pay the electric, gas and rates bills.  In amongst all of this, it only became clear to me much later that my mum had also been really clever as a youngster, and had won the geography prize at her ordinary little school and had somehow learned to play the piano to Grade 8 standard. I only realized this when one day I overheard her play Tchaikovsky’s First Piano Concerto when she thought no-one was listening.

Though they hadn’t benefited much from it themselves, both my parents were very pro-education. I was fortunate to go to a good school. It was a state school when I went there, but previously it had been a grammar school. It still had the Royal Charter from 1573 with the signature of Queen Elizabeth I on it.

Many of my teachers at that school had long experience preparing their pupils for a later university career.

Basically, if they thought you had a glimmer of a hope of getting in to university, they would keep telling you this and encouraging you to work hard to achieve your goal.  Recently I have been shocked, on more than one occasion, to hear about teachers in London who told their disadvantaged pupils that they shouldn’t even apply for university because they had no chance of getting in, and even if they did, they wouldn’t like it when they got there.  No teacher should ever destroy a young person’s aspiration and hope.  I’m not talking about the Disneyfied “anything’s possible if you dream hard enough” but I am talking about realistic aspiration. There is always a requirement for some talent and a lot of hard work to make it in a top university, but there also needs to be aspiration.

A key thing for all of us is to raise the expectations of young people about education, whatever their backgrounds are, and especially if no-one from their family has ever been to university.

I know, first-hand, that education can transform lives. I was fortunate to get in to the University of Cambridge, a great world university, where I learned so much that I couldn’t begin to explain it in a few minutes tonight.

While at university I had the opportunity to be a musician, to learn about the arts and literature, to become a scientist, to meet large numbers of fascinating people from all over the world. I learned quickly that the white working class prejudices that I had grown up with were wrong and very damaging. University, yes even old but wonderful Cambridge, opened my mind to the exciting world in which we live.

There have been so many privileges I’ve experienced as a consequence of being the first in my family to go to university.

I’ve enjoyed a fantastic academic career, along the way publishing a lot of research papers in infectious disease microbiology.  Leadership comes early to a successful scientist, too early many would say.  I was leading my research group very early in my career.  Having worked in industry for a while and at Oxford and Imperial College London, and having been pretty successful during that phase of my career, I arrived back at Cambridge as a pretty young professor. Again, this meant leadership roles being offered to me.

After a few years, they asked me to be Head of the Veterinary School, which involved also being responsible for the veterinary hospital and ensuring that it pulled off the tricky balancing act of being a financially viable business while also providing the necessary teaching and research opportunities.   I was asked to be the Head of the School of Biological Sciences, which incorporates all of the biology and biomedicine basic science Departments at Cambridge, and ultimately before I came here, Senior Pro-Vice Chancellor, with primary responsibility for Planning and Resources.   This was effectively the second-in-command position at Cambridge, and involved, amongst many other things, controlling the finances of the university, to the tune of a turn-over of about 2.5bn pounds.

Whilst doing all of this I have also co-founded four biotech companies, and been a member of the Cambridge Enterprise Seed Fund investment committee, a board member of the patient capital fund Cambridge Innovation Capital, and I have been a full board member of the FTSE250 global animal genomics and breeding company, Genus plc

It is almost a truism, but I’ll say it nevertheless: none of that would have been possible without the aspirational values instilled in me by my up-bringing, allied to the fantastic education I received at school and at University.  The beautiful thing is that being an academic means that it is very easy to continue to learn every day, from colleagues, from fascinating people you meet from outside the university, and importantly from the students.

I am now unbelievably privileged that my career arc has led me to this great university, city and country.

I feel that Sarah and I have arrived in Australia at a really interesting time for the country, and I thought I’d share a few impressions.

Australia’s population is growing. Its economy is strong. It has a hell of a lot going for it.  My early impression is that It’s got something of an inward-looking, perhaps even parochial view of itself at the moment, but at some point, if it really wants to, this country has the opportunity to become a very significant player internationally.   An international powerhouse even.

Australia really can do this. This country has so much potential.  And with that, in a sense, comes a responsibility to fulfil that potential.    In my view there is a responsibility but more importantly an opportunity for Australia to make itself much more significant in terms of leadership on the international stage.

And you won’t be surprised to hear that I think that higher education has a very great deal to do with whether we realise that potential or not.

Even as things stand ‘the sector’ is scoring big runs for Australia. We know that according to Government data international education is Australia’s third-largest export, at more than $32 billion annually, only behind iron ore and coal (which make more than $60b. each.)

So we are a major contributor. But we can and should go much further, and not just in dollar terms. Frankly, there’s no chance whatever of being a global powerhouse if you don’t educate your populace to the highest levels.  There is also an excellent opportunity afforded by having a strong international student body on campus.  We have the chance to educate, in the broadest sense, the leaders of the world of tomorrow, and thus to influence the future, and for Australia to be seen as the crucible in which those leaders and that future are forged.

This is not just about economics and science, it’s also about quality of life, and understanding what it is to be human.  We need to have strong education in the arts, literature, music, so that fantastic places like this National Gallery can continue to curate and challenge representations of our collective pasts, presents and futures.   It requires arts- and music-conscious people appreciate those things and support them, and these people are brought into being through outstandingly high- quality university education.

Outstandingly high-quality business and economics education is a central part of that. And here we – the people in this room – are in a position to make a real difference towards helping Australia realise that huge potential.

We have here at Melbourne a superb, engaged business and economics faculty, with a great partner in the Melbourne Business School.  We also now have a real joint plan for making things work across these two institutions as an international powerhouse for business and economics. I’m very excited by that.

This stuff really matters. In 1996 John Poynter and Carolyn Rasmussen published a history of the University of Melbourne, titled A Place Apart. In hindsight that was an unfortunate title, since it implies a separation of the University from its city.    I do not want this great University to be apart; I want it to be as thoroughly embedded in its home city as it can be.  We need to have a central place in the economic and intellectual life of our community.

We are, in truth, no longer a place apart; our engagement activity has been important in delivering that, but I want to move on from engagement such that we become embedded in the city in all that we do.

We see this in the new and growing University of Melbourne precincts including:

  • The Melbourne Biomedical and Biosciences Campus with its Austin and St Vincent’s partners
  • Melbourne Connect, which we launched late last year, focused on technology, innovation and entrepreneurship primarily in the digital arena
  • The Southbank arts precinct across the road here with many exciting projects underway including the Ian Potter Southbank Centre, the fantastic new home of the Melbourne Conservatorium of Music
  • a new engineering research campus emerging in collaboration with business partners and other universities as part of the major redevelopment of Fisherman’s Bend.

Business and economics is an important part of this big picture. I’ll mention one example which directly relates to my own experience as someone who has commercialized research, namely the Melbourne Entrepreneurial Centre.

The Centre is housed in the Faculty of Business and Economics and  is doing some great work building a culture of commercializing research.

Our great university needs to remember that its core business, in conjunction with teaching, is basic research, asking and addressing the difficult big questions that drive the engine of discovery. But then it is crucially important to make sure that discoveries that are made are moved from the university out to the community, society and the economy.  This translation can happen in many different ways, all valuable, and commercialization must be one of them.  If we can translate our discoveries for the benefit of society I would go so far as to say that we have a duty to do so, and if we can make some money in the process, all well and good!

It takes a lot of different partners working together to create an innovation economy, and I’d like to think of the university as being the vast river filling the front end of the pipeline with energy and force such that our discoveries are pushed through it and out into the world quickly and with maximum impact.

This is about pushing the frontiers of knowledge in all directions, and teaching new generations of people – our students – how to use, interrogate and challenge the canon of knowledge to make new discoveries which can then be launched on the world with belief and energy to try to make a difference to people’s lives.

At a great university like Melbourne we have high-quality research of all kinds happening constantly in all of our fantastic faculties and that includes of course the Faculty of Business and Economics and Melbourne Business School, led so ably by Paul Kofman and Ian Harper.

Someone said to me early on in my time at Melbourne that if you’re going to talk about the Faculty of Business and Economics and the Melbourne Business School, ‘don’t mention the war’.

Once I had removed John Cleese and Fawlty Towers from my mind, I thought to myself, actually I have almost no interest in the war, but I do want to mention the peace that I have actually witnessed.

I know there’s history but I am uninterested in it. Worrying about what others have done in the past can all too easily get in the way of doing what’s best for the future.

What everyone wants to see – and in my few months here I have been seeing it constantly and clearly myself – is that these two great institutions should continue to work together with a positive joint plan for the future under two leadership teams that genuinely respect and trust each other.

I want to help these two great institutions to fly.

And they will, under the plans that Paul and Ian at FBE and MBS have for making Melbourne a great global hub for business education and research in years to come.

That is a vision that conforms completely with my own picture of what Melbourne can achieve on many fronts as a great leading international university.

The university is now in the middle of an exciting year of strategy planning for the future. We are consulting widely for this and I invite everyone here, as friends of the university, to be part of the conversation. Speaking personally, already a few themes of real strategic importance are emerging for me:

  • internationalization – making sure the University becomes an even more important global player in higher education;
  • interdisciplinarity – we have great strengths in so many disciplines and I want to see us leverage that breadth by encouraging more work between the faculties and specialist areas
  • diversity– this is really important to me and an area the university needs to do even better in;
  • the student experience –it’s through creating great educational experiences that we change the world, so we want to ensure that happens.
  • place – we want to connect more closely and organically with the city, with business and with the wider community.

I mentioned diversity and I want to close with this in recognition of tomorrow being International Women’s Day. One great initiative at the University in recent years has been the ‘Respect’ campaign and I intend to continue that because our university needs to open to people of every kind of difference. There can be no second class citizens today.

I’m mindful we have come a long way in appointing and ackknowleding women in leadership positions at the university, many of whom we will acknowledge in a series of events on campus tomorrow. But we have a long way to go on diversity and gender and I am very keen to ensure we travel that journey during my time as VC.