A respectful campus community making a global contribution

The Vice-Chancellor’s annual address to the University of Melbourne community was delivered via Zoom from University Hall, with University Council members present, on Tuesday 15 June 2021

Chancellor, fellow members of the University of Melbourne community:

I begin the 2021 Vice-Chancellor's Address by acknowledging the traditional custodians of the lands on which our University stands – the Wurundjeri people, the Boonwurrung people, the Dja Dja Warrung people and the Yorta Yorta people. I pay my respects to Indigenous elders, past, present and emerging, and I acknowledge all Indigenous members of the University community.

As I stand here this evening, the world continues to face serious challenges from the Covid-19 pandemic and our University is no exception to this.

But these world challenges also underline the essential role that the University plays in society’s future. I emphasise again that we are and will remain dedicated to a particular vision of our University in society.

As I suggested in last year’s Address, an historic challenge like the present pandemic will bring out the best in us as an institution. It has already done so in very many ways. These include, amongst many others, the extraordinary impact of colleagues at the Peter Doherty Institute and others in the infectious diseases and epidemiological modelling disciplines, the work of the team in FREO2 to address shortages in medical oxygen supply in the developing world, and in a different area our staff and students volunteering at food banks.  More broadly, the generosity of our donors has been exemplary, giving more than $120m to strategically critical projects over the year, and we have engaged with a further 15,000 alumni for the first time.

We have the opportunity, now as last year, to display strong leadership for our community and for our country, in partnership with governments and other agencies, fired by a strong sense of civic duty.

One immediate and direct way that I urge every member of the University community to make their contribution is by getting vaccinated against COVID-19 as soon as you possibly can, if you haven’t done so already. And encourage others amongst your friends and neighbours to do likewise. The risks associated with vaccination are extremely small and reducing all the time. The benefits for individuals and for society as a whole are huge. We must show leadership here.

Even with the great advantage of new vaccines in our favour, the fact remains that the University faces several more years of struggle, and the next period of time will not be easy.

We are not yet out of the woods. Far from it. Through great efforts by colleagues across every campus, we have managed our financial resources very effectively. Of course, what has been achieved on this score has also required saying farewell to respected colleagues from our staff. They will be missed.

We estimated we needed to save around $350M to break even and through hard work by many dedicated colleagues and some very difficult decisions we achieved that target. In fact we slightly exceeded it and were able therefore to report a surplus of $8.9M.  But this amount is very small in the context of the size of our revenue stream and the continual investment in the future required in a very large University like ours. The next two or three years will absolutely depend on the numbers of international students enrolling, decisions by the commonwealth government, and other externalities. Being at the mercy of external forces means that it is likely that we will face more challenges. We will have to continue to be responsive and adaptable, and there are likely to be more hard choices for us to make.

Still, we can feel more positive overall than at this time last year. While the pandemic is continuing, it is entering a different phase in several major nations with large proportions of their populations already vaccinated. Nations need to ensure that this continues and, importantly, that vaccines are made available and efficiently delivered in less advantaged countries too. It was very good to see the Commonwealth Government committing to add at least 20 million vaccine doses to the push from the G7 last week to ensure that vaccines are delivered in the Developing World. This remains a global pandemic, and global solutions are the only ones that will properly work to solve it.

The University is different from last year in many ways, but the relevance of our purpose in all its fundamental elements remains. I will turn to these elements now, starting with the campus community.

  1. The campus community

When I think of a great campus-based university, I think first and foremost about people. We are a very particular type of community. People of the most diverse kinds come here to develop and grow. Young people starting out on their journey of discovery; people from very different ethnic and national backgrounds; people holding the most divergent political and religious opinions imaginable. We are a population that includes individuals with an amazing array of abilities and disabilities. With this incredible diversity and a shared focus on learning, communicating and extending knowledge, there is, in my view, nowhere better to be.

This is the case in ordinary times, but in these extraordinary times, how much truer this is. Our students want to be back on campus; they have been telling us this all year. This is something that I too am very keen to make sure happens. This is not straightforward given that we may have to face necessary lockdowns or restrictions in the face of new outbreaks, but we should remain steadfast in aiming to be a fully open campus as soon as we can.

The reason for this is plain. The human benefits of a great university education are enormous. They help people and communities deal with whatever gets thrown at them, in every generation. University education, on campuses like ours, supports and enables people to harness individual talent, and make significant contributions to the world.

Even as our campuses come back to life in second semester, we can only be aware, with varying degrees of personal concern, that our national borders remain closed.

As a recent migrant myself with family overseas, I am acutely conscious of how fraught the global situation is. Our international students overseas who are physically cut off from access to our campus-based life right now feel this acutely too. And so do students from overseas who are living here and who haven’t seen home or family for a long time. You are all in my thoughts as I speak this evening.

Like all good academic institutions, at Melbourne we have a constant dialogue about how best to do our work, and this especially applies to the great enterprise of educating our students or perhaps better put, facilitating their own education and development. Here the community of scholars at every level is constantly thinking about what works well and what can work better:  the latest educational approaches, the latest technologies and how students are interacting with and within the curriculum. The context here is our broad aim of educating graduates for the world, not just for one job.

One positive thing about last year is the way this dialogue has taken off, growing ever richer as we have navigated the challenges of resuming our campus-based life, while bringing to the fore the positive things we've learned through this time of change. As university people, we should constantly strive to improve how we do things. As the Nobel Laureate and Director of the Sanger Institute, Professor Sir John Sulston, put it, ‘What is the purpose of being human and alive without doing new things?’

Here at Melbourne, we are doing new things, on the way to delivering university education better. One measure of interest in this was the education roundtable held last month, where over 600 members of our community came together online over three days, to look at lessons learned and steps ahead as we navigate what's to come. These dialogues, from community-wide ones to smaller conversations among colleagues teaching a single course, are absolutely right where we should be as an institution.

What I would like to see, building on these education-focused conversations of the present moment, is an even richer dialogue across our campuses about what it means to be a fantastic University community. We are partly there already, of course; but we can go further. As well as conferring degrees, what is it that we actually do in the lives of students when we invite them into our community? From music and the arts to the sciences and engineering, through all the disciplines of a comprehensive university, people are being shaped into more knowledgeable and reflective human beings, learning from each other, learning from and with our academic staff, learning how to think in more nuanced and sophisticated ways. A great university education should help everyone who comes here to mature, to grow in judgment, become better adults, become more productive citizens of their nation, and the world. The multi-faceted nature of this University education reflects the diversity of being human itself.

As we move into semester 2, I want to give my heartfelt thanks publicly to all staff members who are teaching and supporting education at Melbourne, for the brilliant work you did last year, and for the gargantuan effort you are putting in now.  I know that your current workload is heavy, and we must continue to think about how to reduce this. But in this moment, our students appreciate your efforts so much. I know this because time and again we are receiving feedback from students about how much they love being back in 2021, interacting with fellow students and with academic staff, and feeling that they belong to a great, campus-based community of scholars.

Along with our students, you are the heart and soul of our campus-based community, and I am deeply grateful for all your work.

  1. The meaning of respect in this University

One of the forces binding any great community is respect. As we build for a successful future at Melbourne, we must hold this principle at the forefront of our minds. There are several reasons for this. The most obvious is that we are living through an important cultural moment right now, in which women - and not only women - are raising their voices to demand respect from institutions.

My response is: that respect is overdue, and we must do more, as a University, to deliver respect to all members of our community, and to model that respect for the wider world.

The women's “March 4 Justice” that took place on 15 March 2021 at rallies around Australia to protest against gendered violence was just one illustration of the urgent need for everyone to take action on this score. Sexual harassment of women by men in positions of power in government, business and, yes, universities, has no place in civilised communities, least of all ours.

One response to this challenge is to ensure that we take steps to elevate and encourage the voices of women when they want to speak out against inappropriate behaviours and sexual harassment. Bystanders — the rest of us — need to raise our voices against inappropriate behaviours. As a University, we need honestly and openly to recognise the power imbalance in many of the human interactions where sexual harassment might occur. Extensive work is currently going on in the University dedicated to making a marked improvement in this area, and I will be updating the University community on progress.

Finally, I will simply say this: each of us needs to make absolutely clear to everyone with whom we work and study that we have no tolerance whatsoever for sexual harassment and sexual assault.

I am going to take the opportunity here to underline the importance of respect for another group of colleagues, students and friends, namely transgender and gender diverse people. It is no secret that there have been some deep disagreements and widely divergent views amongst our community about questions concerning gender identity.  This has at times been perceived as a stand-off between the academic freedom of colleagues to pursue particular questions concerning transgender identity, versus the damage and harm that our transgender colleagues experience from those questions being pursued.

We must try hard on all sides to respect all parties in this debate. I will start by saying that emotional distress and anguish caused to transgender people by inappropriate words being spoken and written is very real, and it is the responsibility of all of us not to add to this burden. This is heightened, and perhaps made much more understandable, when you learn of the sometimes daily threat of physical violence that transgender people confront. Transgender people are first and foremost people, our family members. Many of my remarkable friends and colleagues are transgender and gender diverse.

In this context, how do we ensure that colleagues who want to ask questions in their discipline can do so without crossing the boundary into damaging or harming other colleagues? How can we best handle the tension that can build up between the academic freedom to ask those questions versus the harm experienced by transgender people via the implications of what those questions might mean to them?    These have certainly been key questions for me over the past year or so.

Perhaps of wider importance for us as a university community is to think hard about the meaning of academic freedom.

Academic freedom is something that I would hope we all strongly support. But I would argue that it comes with a price. As academics we are here to ask difficult questions and deal with hard problems.  In doing so we must always hold ourselves to the highest standards and work within the constraints of the discipline we are in. Those constraints vary widely; yet I would suggest that in every discipline, it is fundamental to treat with unerring respect those whom we challenge and with whom we learn.

Respect is an ethical demand that corresponds to the full diversity of our community, and that diversity is both rich and broad. I hope it will continue to expand in years ahead; the rainbow will grow only richer. Respect for diversity means respect for people with many forms of ability, of all racial and ethnic and religious backgrounds and persuasions, of heterodox views, of everyone on the LGBTQIA-plus spectrum.  It means respect for people with whose views we might strongly disagree, and it even means respect for people we might dislike.

Respect is a key ingredient in allowing us to do the vital work we have before us as a scholarly community, in curating, and interrogating, and advancing knowledge. It is something to which we must attend very closely as we prepare for the future.

  1. An International University

With these thoughts in mind, I will turn to the extremely important theme of our being an international university. This has never been more important than it is now.

Across many nations, there has been a desire to protect borders. This is understandable, but it goes against the grain of what a university is, which, as I've argued before, is fundamentally and inherently a global institution. Not only our 24,000 continuing international students, and our 450,000 alumni living around the world, but also many members of our staff, including me, are in one way or another migrants, with families and colleagues overseas in many different countries.

In this context, it is very important to reiterate the university's commitment to remaining a global institution, clearly focused on educating and researching for the world, with colleagues and students from many different countries, taking part in, and where appropriate and necessary leading the big global conversations on the issues that confront humanity.

Behind the scenes, of course, my colleagues and I have been working constantly since the lockdowns began to encourage governments to be open to the return of international students as soon as possible. International students are such enormous contributors to the life of this University, as well as to the life of Australia and to their communities at home. Time and again I have been so impressed by the resilience, determination and courage of our international students; often, young people who have taken risks to study here, and who have done so because they believe in the value of higher education.

Meeting a small number of these students incognito during the long lockdown, when I handed food out as part of the Second Bite initiative was very moving for me. Tonight, as well as expressing our continuing solidarity with our students stuck overseas, I urge members of our community here at home to continue speaking out about the importance of being a global institution, about the benefit this brings to Australia and all our communities. In time we can hope the tide will turn and that we can welcome many more international students back onto campus.

Internationalism is a principle that applies directly to our Australian students too, because part of being a student at Melbourne is that you will in fact become a true global citizen, through your education here. Internationalism is part of what we are, as a scholarly community.

But our internationalism, of course, is not only about students. We also have many partners around the globe, and the relationships with those partners are absolutely integral to everything that we do and stand for. With our International team supporting colleagues in every faculty, we aspire to become even more internationally connected in the years ahead.

And even with closed borders, we are putting runs on the board! One example last month was the launch of the Community Based Inclusive Development program which I attended online with Ministers from the national Government of India and one of the Indian state governments, as well as a number of Melbourne University colleagues. This is an important new education and training initiative supporting people with disability throughout India and it is the result of hard work by University colleagues and their Indian partners over several years; it shows the reality of our commitment to be a true global partner, making a positive difference in the lives of people in communities around the world.

  1. The power of research and discovery

So, despite the challenges we face, we have many reasons for hope.

Given my research career, you won’t be surprised if I say a word or two about the stunning achievement by scientists worldwide who have contributed to the rapid development and approval of the new COVID-19 vaccines. As a microbiologist who worked on vaccines for years, I watched this development with huge interest, and some degree of envy! The mRNA technology that underlies several of the vaccines is an enormous breakthrough, which I must note relied completely on many decades of basic, curiosity-driven research by scientists in many countries.

As university people, we should take pride in telling this story. In March, the newly appointed Minister for Education and Youth, stood in this room to launch the government’s white paper about commercialisation of research. As I pointed out in introducing the minister on that occasion, the recent vaccines are a great example of the impact university research can have. The essential point, though, is that that impact comes from knowledge, both basic and applied — and it is such knowledge that universities specialise in.

As I've argued before, universities exist to curate, challenge and develop the canon of knowledge. It’s what we do. We have not to be shy in pointing out that at the heart of the vaccine story lies this great endeavour.

This is the essential context for the research commercialisation discussion. Research translation, including commercialisation, cannot happen unless you have something to translate. If Australia were to lose its important focus on basic scientific research, alongside translational and commercial research, we would ultimately fail. This is a lesson that every successful nation that generates research learned long ago.

I also acknowledge that translation is not for everyone. Some research is not obviously translatable, and some colleagues have little interest in translating their research. I completely respect this, and support their absolute right to pursue their academic interest.

But having said this, I must also point out that I am strongly in favour of translation of research, and commercialisation more specifically, when necessary and appropriate.   For those who don’t have a desire to commercialise, or to whom their research appears not to be translatable, I would say that you might in fact still have something that can be put into that pathway to benefit society.  Let’s find you a partner who will be able to provide the interest and skills that might support you through this process.

I also reiterate my view that it is not just desirable to translate research, it is our duty to do so when the opportunity arises.  This is not onerous, it is in fact liberating and can open up many other avenues of enquiry and discovery.

From a broad policy perspective, we should also keep in clear view the fact that great impact can result from the deep knowledge base constituted by researchers across many disciplines.

This knowledge base is a critically important source of advice to governments and others in the community, as has been demonstrated dramatically in the past year and a bit since the onset of COVID-19, with governments at various levels turning instinctively to university researchers for reliable and authoritative advice on extremely difficult and unprecedented public policy decisions. Advice has been provided by University colleagues not just on medical policy but in many other areas including housing, wages, domestic violence, mental health, schooling, transport and engineering. Translational work is not specific to one discipline and is certainly not all in the STEM areas.

Closely related to this, we should also keep in view the important phenomenon of what might be called ‘meta-translation’. This means that to keep Australia’s businesses and organisations functioning competitively, the nation needs a steady pipeline of well-educated human talent. Very often companies are seeking to recruit young people who are educated in how to think, how to deal with uncertainty, how to solve problems, how to contemplate the bigger picture, how to be adaptable. This is the focus that we should have when educating our students, and this is a true and proper preparation for success in their careers.   In this context, clearly the research-infused education produced by universities can be construed as being one of the university sector’s most vital translational impacts.

A very important part of our community is our cohort of almost 5000 graduate researchers. These people are the bedrock of the future research workforce and we must find ways to nurture them. It’s interesting to note a striking estimate that 70 to 80 per cent of commercialized research involves at least one graduate researcher.

Commercialized research at Melbourne is itself a major story that we have not been telling well enough to date. The University has many exciting stories of great research impact happening right now.

For example, we can look at our companies associated with research into epilepsy, now worth millions of dollars and employing over 100 people.

We can note the world-leading work of our genomics innovation hub, in partnership with the global genomics technology company Illumina, which is addressing (among other issues) complex cancer research, and will certainly generate commercial spinoffs in the years ahead.

I can also point to where science meets arts and humanities at the Grimwade Centre for Cultural Materials Conservation, which is achieving outstanding impact, not least in supporting Indigenous culture and knowledge, amongst many other contributions. This is a great example of University people operating in a commercialization landscape to achieve crucial translational impact in non-profit ways.

We are investing more in supporting these translational ventures by our brilliant research community. It’s a great way ahead, and part of our story as a university that we will tell more loudly and more often. Governments need to hear it. The community needs to hear it. We ourselves need to hear it, because it underlines the critical importance of all that we are doing day-to-day as a university.


I will close with two examples of exciting new developments that highlight how the University is seizing the initiative, to help humanity in the big fight against two of its toughest problems.

The first of these is climate change, and the initiative is Melbourne Climate Futures which we launched in March. This is a fantastic step forward for the University and will, I’m confident, be significant in the world. Melbourne Climate Futures is a major cross-disciplinary effort that specifically seeks to address an obviously serious global problem. It is about the University stepping up, showing leadership, and clearly standing out among world universities as a community of scholars from many different disciplines who are not afraid to tackle the hardest questions of the day.

It recognises that when you have a truly complex and difficult problem like global warming, the solutions are not simple; they too are complex, and require the collaborative input of real experts from many different points on the knowledge compass, from the arts and humanities to the basic and applied sciences to the professional knowledge disciplines. I am delighted that this initiative is being led by people from the social sciences, with experts in energy, economics, health, waste management, sustainability, and other fields being already engaged with the project, and it is connecting to a vital set of global conversations where Melbourne can and should play a true leadership role.

The same must be said of another initiative, announced just last month, with the launch of the Australian Institute for Infectious Disease – a great joint venture with our partners at the Burnet and Doherty Institutes and extremely generously supported by the State Government.   The current pandemic has highlighted anew what has always been a challenge for humanity.  Infectious diseases and their devastating impact on individuals, communities, nations and the world are a constant part of our history. We have great expertise in this field here in Australia and particularly at the University of Melbourne. But as with climate change, there is a pressing need to bring together the best minds from everywhere, to generate and harness the power of collaboration and goodwill among experts who are united in their desire to (once again) make a difference in how governments and nations and communities plan for and respond to the major threats that exist from infectious diseases.

I am immensely proud of the collegial efforts that have gone into creating the AIID. The new institute will become a special focal point for the Asia-Pacific region in the ongoing fight against infectious diseases, building on the power of co-location and collaboration in one of the world’s great biomedical precincts here at Parkville.

To conclude: it is easy, perhaps too easy, to focus only on how the world has changed since early 2020. I do not underestimate those changes. They have an impact on the world, in large and very obvious ways. They affect the University, also in obvious and often difficult ways. But what remains the same — and indeed grows in importance — is the relevance of our central purpose. We can see that relevance in a high-level way, by looking at our strategy, formally adopted just over a year ago: Advancing Melbourne, with its five key themes of community, place, education, discovery and global.

We can see that relevance also in quite down to earth ways - like staff members volunteering to distribute food, and alumni giving generously to support students; like colleagues and students acting spontaneously by speaking out against abuses of power and privilege; like the huge efforts students and staff make to reach out and support each other, even at times when online contact was the only way to do this. We see it too when colleagues across disciplines think together in visionary ways about how they can do new things – so that we as a community can make a positive difference in the world.

With such initiatives, as well as the inspiring work of colleagues and students from across every faculty, we are, I think, showing the kind of collaborative leadership that builds on 168 years of public tradition at the University of Melbourne. It is a tradition that has grown only stronger through the trials of the past year, that now crystallizes in the commitment we bring to our work in the years to come.

Together then, we can truly look with confidence to the future.