Navigating the New Norm – The Contribution of Australian Universities post-pandemic

Vice-Chancellor Maskell’s keynote address to the AFR Higher Education Summit, delivered Wednesday 30 September 2020

1. Introduction: a prime national asset

Thank you for inviting me to speak today.  It’s great to be with you.

When I arrived here in 2018, one of the things which excited me about coming to Australia was the chance to encounter, and learn from, the oldest living cultures on earth, those of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples, and that encounter is proving immensely enriching and educational. I’ve been warmly and graciously welcomed by many Indigenous Elders and made many new friends, and I respectfully begin this Address by acknowledging them, and all the traditional custodians of the lands on which we work and live. I pay my respects to Indigenous Elders past, present and emerging, and acknowledge all Indigenous people watching or listening.

I came as a foreigner, but I also knew that I was coming to nation with a fantastic university sector and a great tradition of university education. We do not need rankings systems to tell us that Australian universities are competitive in the top echelons of world universities. I noticed one comment amid recent rankings news:

83 per cent of Australian universities are ranked by the Shanghai Jiao-Tong system in its list of the top 1000 institutions worldwide.

This compares to 40 per cent for Britain, and 7 per cent for the USA. On this measure, Australia might be said overall to have the best system in the world. This does not surprise me but I suspect it will still surprise some Australians who do not recognise what to me is blindingly obvious, which is that what we have here in our university sector is of very high global quality and standing.

Our universities are collectively a prime national asset.

I will argue today that this value as a national asset is growing rapidly, and that as the nation seeks to recover from the impacts of Covid-19 it makes a lot of sense to make the most of this national asset. It needs to be nurtured and protected so that it can thrive post-pandemic, and in so doing set the nation on the path to an even better position than it was in before.

To set this in context, it helps to start by understanding that Australian higher education has made a huge contribution to Australia over very many years. This contribution will grow more important in the years after the pandemic, but for that to happen, we need to help our fellow citizens, the general public and policy-makers alike, towards a much clearer understanding of not only the basic economic facts about the sector, but I think more importantly, of the fundamental values driving the sector, its students and its staff, in relation to our core work, which is of course education and research across the knowledge disciplines.

Those knowledge disciplines necessarily range across a wide landscape, and include those that address important basic and theoretical questions, through to those rooted in the more applied solving of specific problems.  They range across the natural sciences and medicine, engineering, the arts and humanities, the social sciences, business, law and other professions, and numerous other disciplines that I have left off that list.  All of these knowledge areas are vital, and crucial to understand is that they all interconnect with each other in many different ways.

All are also strongly infused with a research ethos, which I think of as the business of interrogating and, in so doing, advancing knowledge.  Asking difficult questions is an inherent property of being a great university.

The vast majority of the knowledge disciplines are exceptionally well-served in Australia, and have been for many years.

I hope we can agree that it is important for policy-makers and the public alike to appreciate these facts first and foremost, and hold them in sharp focus, if we are to have an informed discussion about future policy.

2. Historical contribution. Disciplines, values.

The history of Australian higher education has been well-explored by numerous commentators including my predecessor as VC at the University of Melbourne, Glyn Davis in his book The Australian Idea of a University. The first universities here, founded in the mid-nineteenth century, were the result of then-current British ideas, geared both to the teaching of basic and fundamental knowledge in the classics and the arts (which then embraced the natural sciences), and to the establishment of professional disciplines of engineering, medicine and law, necessary so that Australia did not have to remain beholden to Britain for these essential functions. As research became something that universities everywhere started to do, under the influence of Humboldt and the German research university, so the Australian sector also came to place research at the centre of its mission.

Moving forward about a hundred years, after 1989, and the Dawkins-era reforms, a familiar idea of a university has taken root across Australia.  It teaches comprehensively, and values research in its own right, but also uses its research to teach the most up-to-date thinking in the field.  It services a large commuter student base as well as an increasingly internationalised student body.   This is a successful model, and in one form or another I am convinced that it should continue.

Australian universities have an additional great strength – one that gives untapped potential– which is the way that we stand at the intersection of three distinctive timelines in the history of knowledge. The first is the tens of thousands of years of Indigenous knowledge, to which we as Australians are particularly indebted, and of which we have barely scratched the surface. Indigenous knowledge is an asset for the nation and the world which can be, and should be, much more deeply explored and celebrated. The second is the approximately thousand-year history of European universities, since institutions like Bologna, Paris, Oxford and Cambridge first emerged, the best of whose traditions are very much reflected in the Australian system. The third is the nineteenth century, colonial-era university which, with all its faults, has developed into the strong Australian system of today. This unique intersection of timelines is a huge strength for the Australian sector and gives a good foundation from which to be optimistic about its future.

We now stand on the brink of perhaps a fourth element of that time-line, with consideration of what our universities will be for, and what we will look like, in the digital world, with the covid-19 pandemic acting as a catalyst worldwide to speed up that major shift.

3. ‘Foundational and catalytic’

I think that it is clear that universities have been embedded from the off in the progress and development of the modern Australian nation. Universities have been and, I argue strongly, should continue to be seen as foundational institutions for our society. Several of us pre-date the Australian Commonwealth itself.

The University of Melbourne was founded in 1853 and the foundation stone of its first building was laid in 1854. In those days there was a muddy track leading up to the nascent campus from the Yarra; the Lieutenant-Governor and his entourage had an arduous journey reaching it in order to lay that foundation stone, not the smooth 15-minute tram ride of today.  They obviously decided to kill two birds with, perhaps, two stones, so they laid the foundation stone of the State Library at the corner of Swanston and LaTrobe streets on the same day.  I like this historical linkage between these foundational knowledge institutions, for Melbourne and for Australia, each of which played a strong role in shaping the kind of city and nation we eventually became.

Universities continue to be foundational today, as we see through the many partnerships built with businesses, governments, and not-for-profit organisations all over the country, and internationally. As we eventually re-set on coming out of this pandemic crisis, universities will need to be foundational once again, and if they are not seen as such by those in power, we will all have missed a superb opportunity.

But perhaps more importantly than this, universities are catalytic, in the true sense of the word; increasing the rate at which innovation and new ideas arise, and new industries come into existence. The traditional idea of the campus, where young and brilliant minds encounter, challenge and stimulate each other, has been amplified in recent decades as more organisations come to see the value of co-location and partnership with university people, in cities certainly, but also for regional economies. Here I note a report this month by the Regional Universities Network that highlighted the significant financial impact universities are having in regional Queensland and elsewhere.

In fact, all over Australia in cities and towns where universities operate, this same catalytic dynamic is at work, connecting through a wide range of professions and disciplines.

4. The ‘Jobs ready graduates’ agenda in context

The foundational and catalytic roles of universities within Australia place us well to be critical friends to governments. I hope we will always be that: unafraid to provide criticism when necessary and justified, but doing this in the context of a partnership built on mutual trust and respect. This principle applies at all levels of government: local, state and federal. My university is working closely with the City of Melbourne in terms of how to reactivate our great city once measures to combat Covid are relaxed. We are working in tandem with the State Government more broadly to develop programmes that will help with economic regeneration, amongst many other things. And we are offering our expertise in many different areas to the Federal government to help with nation-wide questions and problems.  This is of course true of all the sector’s other universities too.  These contributions require trust and mutual respect, and work best when true partnership is the preferred modus operandum.

A strong national focus of policy recently has been the federal government’s Jobs Ready Graduates agenda with legislation currently going through Parliament, as we heard this morning from the Minister. I don’t propose to analyse this legislation closely here. But I will say that the concept of a “job-ready graduate” needs to be framed in such a way that we do not see it as simply requiring people to be trained for a single job description.

Universities have always, and continue to, produce graduates who are well prepared for jobs in a broad range of ways.   This is shown most simply by our graduates in the professions, but there are many other ways that young people can be prepared for the world of work.  This is not simply about training but about a broad educational mission, as distinct from a more linear training agenda, with a purpose to help to develop agile and prepared minds that can take on a wide range of challenges and adapt to a wide range of possibilities. A narrow focus on fitting graduates to current jobs can miss an essential feature of what universities have always provided for their graduates and will (I hope) always provide. And this is a true education, not just a simple training exercise, grounded in being taught how to think things through properly, and how to ask the key questions of any situation.

Job descriptions change, sometimes quite rapidly. Indeed, in a dynamic, disruptive global economy, whole industries can potentially disappear much quicker than anyone would like. Graduates are facing a time when they will expect to have multiple careers during their lifetime. Which job are we making them ready for if we take a narrow focus?  While improving the skills of our graduates, we must not allow our great universities to become simply upskilling factories.

5. The ‘life of the mind’ after Covid-19

In essence this broad education deals with the process of helping people learn how to think in a disciplined and productive way. There are many ways to describe this thinking, most of them, not entirely satisfactory. Some people speak of ‘critical thinking’. Others speak of ‘creative thinking’. Both these elements are important. But perhaps the broadest way to describe what universities provide is to call it a transformative exposure to the life of the mind.

This takes place in different ways in different disciplines. Performance artists, theoretical physicists, criminal jurists, bacteriologists like me, all think in slightly different ways from each other.  But in Australian universities – which to remind you are universities of outstanding global quality – there is a common set of intellectual activities which go on continuously across all the disciplines. I boil it down to three basic things: the curation of knowledge, the interrogation of knowledge, and the constant two-way participation of students.

The curation of knowledge – organising and sharply presenting the knowledge effort of humankind in any discipline area – relates closely to the teaching enterprise of universities.

The interrogation of knowledge – where students and researchers ask searching questions of the existing body of discipline knowledge, seeking ways to improve and extend it, relates closely to the research enterprise.

And students are absolutely fundamental in all of this. Students should be enabled continually to refresh the university enterprise by challenging academics to explain themselves better (in their teaching) and as the students deepen their own knowledge, to challenge the research base directly with original questions of their own.

This is a brilliant setting for young people to learn how to think, not what to think, and how to apply their minds to complex problems, in such a way as to learn the difference between knowledge and opinion, fact and myth, and to start to understand the limits of our own human knowledge.

The wide diversity of people and perspectives students encounter as part of this process contributes a centrally important part of what students experience at university.

As we move towards more knowledge delivery online, we also need to make sure that we do not lose this crucial element of a great university education.

What gives life to the real-time campus experience is the constant work of experts in the various disciplines, working with students and emerging researchers to challenge knowledge as it stands. I am certain that this fundamental dynamic will remain the defining feature of good universities everywhere, in the world that emerges from the onset of Covid-19. It will be the defining feature of Australian universities.

We may actually come to have unequivocally the best campus experience anywhere in the world for students who are able to come here, building on a global reputation for safe, healthy communities, and our success in fighting the virus during the dark period of these past few months. Other nations with leading higher education systems appear to be struggling still with the public health challenges to do with Covid-19. Look at the huge uncertainty, and conflicting public health advice that emerged in different parts of the United States, and more recently in the UK since the reopening of colleges there in the past few weeks.

It's not my intention to be boastful about Australia’s virtues over anyone else’s. But it’s firmly in our national interest to recognise our own strengths, and their global significance. The point is that the whole world, and not just Australia, will be looking for people who can lead it out of these challenges, to find new solutions to a host of problems, in years and decades to come.

People with disciplined minds, those who have received the benefits of outstanding education in the kinds of universities we have here, are exactly the people the world will need.

We can deliver, and we shouldn’t be shy about saying so.

There are so many examples we could point to in recent months to illustrate this capacity of trained knowledge leaders to step into the breach at a time of crisis. I just choose two from my University – the contributions of bio-medical experts at the Doherty Institute for Infection and Immunity, and on the social sciences front, the continuing population survey research at the Melbourne Institute.

Doherty scientists were the first in the world to grow the SARS-COV-2 virus in a lab outside China, and then to send it out to other labs around the world. This was one of many important contributions from that Institute to the global health effort to contain and combat the virus.

The Melbourne Institute’s population survey data show governments, and anyone else who wants to look, what is happening to Australians’ lives as a result of Covid-19. It includes such disturbing but important data as the fact that Australians in financial distress are much more likely to avoid health care since the pandemic started than those who are financially comfortable. This is information which would be hidden without the constant great work of university researchers. Of course, we can easily multiply these examples from colleagues across the sector, and across Australia. My point is that universities are crucial, and will become even more so as the nation, and the world tries to recover from Covid-19.

I cannot leave this subject without also mentioning the creative arts. I think it would have been impossible for any of us, (it certainly would have been for me), to survive the lockdown period this year without the contribution of creative artists, writers and musicians, and the arts and humanities in general. These things are much more than background noise in our lives. At difficult times they can become a mainstay of our lives, and at any time can inspire and guide us as we try to make sense of the world.

Again, education and research in the creative arts disciplines are some of the vital contributions made by the higher education sector, alongside the irreplaceable contributions of medical and natural science researchers and social scientists. Often, when I consider the arts, I think of Simon Schama presenting the remake of the Civilisations series on TV and visiting the caves at Lascaux in France. Here we see cave paintings, and a silhouette of the artist’s hand, dating back about 17,000 years. Schama tries to answer the question why these paintings are here, by looking into the camera and simply affirming: ‘This is what we do.’

And of course, the oldest rock art in the world is here in Australia, some of it at least twice as old as the paintings at Lascaux. It is such an important part of our shared culture in this country, created by Indigenous Australians, and one in which the university sector can play a leading role, in partnership with Indigenous communities, elucidating, celebrating and making better known. Indigenous knowledge is another reason why a civilised, twenty-first century nation needs a great higher education system, and why I’m optimistic about our future role.

6. Research and research-infused education

Perhaps the single most important reason we are here is to ‘light the fire’ for students. The reference of course is to Plutarch’s aphorism: ‘the mind is not a vessel to be filled but a fire to be kindled’. Of course we are essential contributors to ‘knowledge delivery’, but we are not here only to plough knowledge into people’s heads. We are here to start people thinking anew about many different things, and to become people who are interested in investigating subjects more deeply.  Was that ever more important than now, in the midst of this crisis?

That process of people learning to think in new ways and to want to investigate subjects more deeply is vital to producing the graduates the nation and the world want and need. It is also the first step on the way to producing research, which is a fundamental human activity, not performed by machines but by people who think that knowledge interrogation and expansion through research is the most interesting activity there is. The presence of this research enterprise which goes on continuously in our universities is essential, not just for the nation’s research effort, but also in making the educational contribution of universities uniquely valuable, and irreplaceable.

Brilliant researchers may not always make the best teachers – but in fact they often do. At the very least we need scholarly communities where research and teaching take place close by each other, with students participating actively. I agree with the perspective given by my colleague Brian Schmidt, who said that future students may ask:if I am not being taught by a research-active teacher, why exactly should I get my education at a university at all?’

But we need to recognise that the shape of education is changing in universities, as education is changing everywhere under the often-positive influence of learning and information technology. At my previous university in the UK I argued that lecture theatres should not be included in future building designs because the traditional lecture has passed its use-by date: shared, collaborative learning spaces seem to be the way of the future.

This year we have also learned a great deal about the potential for supporting learning online, and I am convinced that knowledge delivery will mostly be through online delivery from here onwards.

But these developments do not alter the fundamental principle of university education that I am pointing to here, namely the close interaction of research and teaching which is a distinctive and necessary element in a great university education. Students, the wider nation and the wider world will continue to value this integration of research and teaching in university education; it is important that Australian education policy-makers should do so too.

7. Economic contribution – an emergent property

Turning to our economic contribution, of course, our higher education sector makes a great economic contribution to the nation. Everyone with a knowledge of Australian economic data will have seen the numbers over and over again, about the value of universities to GDP.

But a couple of quick reminders are worthwhile. In the past decade we’ve seen numbers like $25 billion a year being contributed to GDP by the sector, and graduates’ skills being worth $140 billion to the economy. We’ve seen the value of university research being rated as worth more than the entire value of the mining sector.

We’ve seen education being ranked as Australia’s largest service export, with higher education representing about two-thirds of this. Last November Minister Tehan highlighted the importance of this, saying international education had contributed $37.6 billion to the economy with a 15 per cent increase in the previous year. As the Minister said at the time, Australians should be proud of their international education sector, which is, he re-iterated, ‘our largest service-based export and supports 240,000 jobs, business opportunities and economic growth.’

Of course, in the short-term, many economic sectors are being affected by the Covid-19 shakeup in the world.

But surely, we don’t need to make the general case yet again that as a sector, universities are a big driver of the economy in this country. We get reminders of this all the time. I went to the awards ceremony for the Governor’s Awards for Exporters at the National Gallery of Victoria last year and was surprised when my university won the ‘Exporter of the Year’ award. I don’t think this is a status the sector has deliberately sought, but it is a simple fact that we do achieve outstanding results for the country through being extremely good at it.

This is an important point that, again, I would love more people to understand. The economic value contribution of universities is not our raison d’etre, but is a very happy by-product. Most universities in this country have been well managed financially for many years, and most make a surplus rather than a loss (or at least we did before Covid!)  We sometimes get it in the neck for making a surplus, but to do the opposite would be at least irresponsible, and in some cases illegal!

The question is where does the surplus go?  Well, it doesn’t go into the hands of owners or shareholders because we don’t have any.  We are not a business in those terms.  All surplus income over costs goes back into education and research. It goes back into the core mission.

But what emerges from the core activities of the University, in economic terms, is a range of positive outcomes, encompassing the highly educated workforce of the future, who themselves spend money in the economy while at university, and continue being net contributors once they graduate. The outcomes include research and innovation that helps various industries do things better, and in some cases leads to the invention of brand new industries. And they include a deep well of expertise and advice of which we need to drink deep as we rebuild towards a ‘new normal’, socially and economically, post-pandemic.  Government funding for universities is not money simply spent, it is an essential investment in providing a successful future for the country.

8. Internationalism and globalisation

I want to finish by addressing the important theme of internationalism in relation to the national interest and our post-pandemic response.

Since Covid-19 there has been much commentary on Australian universities being too reliant on international students.

I think that this statement is probably true in terms of the simple economics of the matter, although to blame the universities for this exclusively would be to misrepresent quite a few recent years of strong support from policy-makers and commentators for the fact that we were able to fund ourselves from this source, and thus take a big burden off the public purse, especially in terms of cross-subsidies to research spending.

The purely financial argument, however, rather misses a much bigger point.  Internationalism is a key strength of Australian universities, not a weakness. It’s a positive, not a problem.  It provides diversity of cultures and viewpoints, and brings the best brains from all over the world.

In the language of our public debates, we may get side-tracked into discussing internationalism by confusing it with globalisation. Globalisation, often discussed in mercantile and economic terms as a recent trend, can refer to such phenomena in the commercial world as the ‘offshoring’ of supply chains and the targeting of international ‘markets’. Too often the language of markets is used in Australian higher education too, and I wish it were not. International students should not be seen primarily as a ‘market’; they are people, often very brilliant and courageous ones, who bring more to this nation than they take away.

Let us also remember that since their inception, universities have been inherently international institutions. The University of Paris emerged in 1150: it had four different faculties, each with its own language.

The great motto of Paris (still) is hic et ubique terrarum -- ‘Here and throughout the world’.  It is a motto which could apply well to many Australian universities. Universities thrive as institutions, in Australia especially, because of a great historical tradition of attracting the best, most curious minds, from everywhere on the planet. No matter whence they come, staff and students in Australian universities who have arrived in growing numbers since the late 1980s have been drawn here on this basis.

For me, the sector’s international students will be always be a vital part of who we are, as educational institutions and as a nation. Fundamentally, their importance is not as a source of revenue, but in what they bring to the knowledge enterprise. This enterprise works best with people who come from everywhere, in geographic, cultural and social terms.

Inevitably, there will be some reconfiguring of our work with international students and staff post-Covid-19, and what this reconfiguring will look like is not yet clear. But we will find new ways to make our international teaching and research collaborations and international student experience work.

International students will still want to come here, perhaps eventually in greater numbers than ever. This is mainly because great university education is highly desired by human beings everywhere, and it happens to be what we offer in Australia. In the short term, some institutions will have a heavy emphasis on domestic enrolments, for practical reasons. But as a sector and again as a nation, we should not lose sight of the distinctive contribution of international students.

This is globally important. Tensions are rising today between many nation state governments. This fact makes the international collaboration aspect of the work done by Australian universities uniquely valuable. Universities draw people together from everywhere, and they do this on a non-political basis. They do so not to fuel the flames of conflict but to deliver great education and research. Those influenced by a great university education in Australia for a significant portion of their lives, as are our international students, not to mention leading researchers from other countries pursuing their work here, may well be less inclined in later life to contribute further to such tensions. They are much more likely to become global bridge-builders and firm friends and ambassadors for Australia.

This is not guaranteed, but it is a very reasonable hope.

9. Conclusion. A vital national interest role despite reconfiguring

In conclusion: The onset of Covid-19 has been a time which seriously challenges everyone, including Australian universities. I am confident this sector will rise to the challenge, despite some re-configuring, because we have great quality in what we do, and this has never been more obvious than in the amazing efforts made by our staff and students to ensure the continuance of high-quality education and research in difficult circumstances throughout this year.

Because of all these factors, the Australian higher education system is uniquely well-placed to offer even stronger national and international leadership in the years ahead. I am very pleased to be part of it.

Thank you.