The University’s vital role in the wake of pandemic

The Vice-Chancellor’s annual address to the University of Melbourne community, delivered via Zoom from University Hall, Wednesday 15 July 2020

Fellow members of the University of Melbourne community: thank you for joining me!

Tonight I return to the same spot where last year I delivered the inaugural Vice-Chancellor’s Address, here in University Hall, located at the ceremonial heart of the University, and in the first building in its history, the Old Quad.

I come to our beautiful campus tonight under much-changed circumstances. Where last year we had a full audience here in University Hall, tonight I am here alone, with just a handful of colleagues who have generously come in to livestream the event.

Thanks to the work of those valued colleagues from Learning Environments and Business Services, we go out live tonight to people right across the University community. I welcome everyone.

In last year’s address I commenced with a story predating the foundation of the University by some years, when a European settler, William Westgarth, found himself lost in the dark somewhere near where the Old Quad now stands, and a group of Wurundjeri people, gathered about a campfire, kindly pointed out to him his way home.

The story is a reminder that though the University is 167 years old, we stand here on ancient land, among people who have cared for this earth for thousands of generations. So I commence by acknowledging those traditional owners, of all the lands on which the University stands: the Wurundjeri people, the Boonwurrung people, the Dja Dja Warrung people and the Yorta Yorta people. I pay my respects to their Elders, past, present and emerging, and I respectfully acknowledge Indigenous colleagues and friends who may be watching or listening.

These annual Vice-Chancellor’s Addresses are intended as a ‘State of the University’-type report, and also an opportunity for me as Vice-Chancellor to say a little more in depth about future steps for the University. Given the challenges of the pandemic, I thought long and hard about whether to deliver an Address this year.

I decided to do so because now, more than ever, it is vital that we remain connected, and focused, as a community, on the big picture of why we are a university and what we are here to do.

I recognise how difficult things are at the moment. Since last February, we have seen the greatest crisis to confront the higher education sector in this country in its history, as a result of the SARS-CoV2 virus. This has come as a threat at every level:

  • to our ability to work on campus at all;
  • to the teaching and learning of our tens of thousands of enrolled students;
  • to our entire, vital research enterprise; and
  • to the material well-being, including the health, of all our people – staff, students, family members, alumni, and those in our broader communities.

The whole sector is threatened, not just the University of Melbourne. And the impacts on the wider economy are considerable. In April, researchers at Victoria University’s Mitchell Institute estimated that the sector faces cumulative losses of up to $19 billion over the next three years through lost international student revenue; this implies a loss to the wider economy in Australia of $40 billion over those three years. Peter Hurley from the Mitchell Institute writes:

"We estimate each six-monthly intake missed [by universities] due to closed borders will deliver an annual economic blow comparable to when Australia’s auto manufacturing industry shut down (worth around $5 billion), or the loss of Australia’s $4.1 billion annual vegetable crop."

The current situation, if unchecked, would certainly be a threat to our existence. Our University has been well-managed financially for many years now, and this gives us the great advantage of being able to take a careful, rational, strategic approach when considering the necessary next steps for the institution as we respond to the threats we face.

I want to make sure that whatever serious and unwelcome steps we have to take to make sure we stay financially viable are taken with a long-term strategic view in mind.

We must set ourselves up to thrive, not just survive, and to come out the other end of this current crisis stronger, and with a mission to continue giving our young people a fantastic education to enable them to thrive too.

We must do this in the context of continuing, and strengthening our outstanding research, and we must do this across all fields of endeavour.

It is no exaggeration to say that not just Australia, but also the world needs this University. The world’s challenges are our challenges. We are a great university, for Australia and for the world.

In 2020, the challenges the world faces are being rapidly reshaped by the pandemic. But they go beyond the pandemic too. I can point here to:

  • International relations, as tensions rise between some of the most powerful governments on earth;
  • continuing struggles for, and arguments over, justice and injustice within societies, leading to renewal of old and unresolved tensions, reflected in the recent Black Lives Matter protests, which have travelled around the world; and
  • (especially problematic for university people I suggest) the continuing abasement of practices of respectful reasoning and persuasion, in favour of the appeal to force, emotion, anger and fear.

One thing that especially disturbs me is the preponderance of narrow thinking in so many  debates and discussions.

I will say some things tonight about the brilliant work of university scientists and other academics, who have contributed so much to the sensible handling of the disease. But I believe that our experts in all the other disciplines, especially including the arts and humanities, will now be needed more than ever to help people outside our university community to think better and reason more thoughtfully about how they go about rebuilding their lives, and our shared world, in the years to come.

At this challenging moment in our history as a university and a nation, we have a special role to play. Universities always have a special role, of course. But this moment, influenced, perhaps even dominated by perfectly understandable fear of an infectious disease, calls out to the University of Melbourne and similar institutions to show their mettle through intellectual leadership.

This returns us to some of the themes that I have spoken about often:

  • education, inquiry, and the interrogation of knowledge;
  • diversity of viewpoints, and
  • the respectful yet robust exchange of ideas that happens every day in a great university.

It brings us back to things we do instinctively as university people, but don’t always reflect on deeply. Universities like ours help people – our students, our colleagues, those with whom we work – to think through problems from multiple points of view. It’s a feature born of a rigorous approach to knowledge, and the multidisciplinary reality of living and working in a University community. This is something the world needs now, as it contemplates post-pandemic life.

Life after the pandemic is going to be difficult, in a host of obvious, and not-so-obvious ways. One of the big difficulties will lie with how we are going to think in relation to living in a world with this new disease.

I am old enough to remember illnesses in society in earlier times. I have terrifying memories of a television program I saw as a young child showing other children living in iron lungs because of the ravages of polio.

Such passing memories hint at some of the massive cultural and social change we have undergone, during one fairly typical person’s lifetime.

Make no mistake: Covid-19 can be a terrible illness. I have lost a friend and colleague in the UK who died from it, and as a microbiologist I am acutely aware what a challenging public health threat it represents.

The key question that I think we need to ask is: how can we take measures to protect those most vulnerable to the disease, especially the old, without causing irreparable damage to the rest of the human population as a consequence of those same protective measures?

There are several closely related questions to consider. How much pain will different cohorts of the community have to take, for what lengths of time, and to what precise end?  And how can we ensure that the correct balance is struck between preventing deaths from the infection now versus deaths that will occur in the medium to long-term as a consequence of the societal and economic damage caused by the measures taken to prevent those immediate deaths?

These are the very difficult questions posed by our new reality in the world today, and they require input from thinkers from a wide range of disciplines before they can be sensibly answered.

As university people, with a strong sense of historical and cultural narratives, in addition to our scientific knowledge, we may even perceive that our new reality is not actually all that ‘new’ at all– given all the other infectious diseases that have existed throughout the history of the world, and indeed currently still exist in many parts of the world.

I am reminded here of Daniel Defoe’s great book, A Journal of the Plague Year, published in 1722, but describing the Great Visitation of the plague on London in 1665. Defoe reports:

...and many Families foreseeing the Approach of the Distemper, laid up Stores of Provisions, sufficient for their whole Families, and shut themselves up, and that so entirely, that they were neither seen or heard of, till the Infection was quite ceased...

In some ways, things change very little!

Tonight at the University of Melbourne, what I will say with confidence is that we will survive as a community, and I don’t just mean the university but society as a whole.

But to survive and flourish again, we will need, above all, to shift our gaze beyond the present pandemic and to think calmly and rationally about the bigger picture and about a future where we live with this virus as an everyday reality.

Here, universities have a huge role to play, through our vital work of both education and discovery. As I have often said, we are here both to be the ‘engine of discovery’ and to build that excitement for knowledge in students, that ‘fire to be kindled’ in the mind, of which Plutarch spoke.

Last year I said, and I repeat again tonight: ‘Education and research must be seen as conjoined activities undertaken with the full participation of the whole community at the University, and this most definitely includes our students.’

Tonight I am pleased to report back to the University community that these principles have been clearly spelled out in our new strategy, Advancing Melbourne, which was published during May, during our first pandemic lockdown.

I warmly congratulate the many colleagues who have worked hard, through some trying days, to ensure the delivery of Advancing Melbourne. I believe that Advancing Melbourne gives the University a strategy which can inspire and guide us, and provide a very strong foundation on which to build for the future.

Advancing Melbourne calls us to focus on the core elements of being a leading university:

  • of being connected to place, as we are here tonight in the ceremonial heart of the University;
  • of being a community in which inspiring students is our constant activity;
  • of being a place of education, and of discovery;
  • of being a university that is truly global, truly international, serving the world.

From that wider world perspective, there is so much that the University of Melbourne can bring, and will bring to recovery after the pandemic. I will speak about our medical and health research later.

But the world will need our other contributions too, just as much or more: the contributions of the arts and the creative arts, the social sciences, of our experts in the law and in education, in urban and environmental design, in the basic and fundamental sciences and engineering, and in the veterinary and agricultural sciences, and in all our other disciplines and areas.

I think that the world is already moving out of the phase where medical science alone needs to take the lead in fighting the pandemic, and into the phase where the social sciences and humanities have a central role to play.

Tonight, with the onslaught of the pandemic front of mind and with Advancing Melbourne here to guide us, I am clear that this University is very much part of the recovery that the nation and the world must and will undertake. We should be very confident that our university, with its broad set of disciplines and wide-ranging research in many fields, has powerful, vital contributions to make.

First, I will talk about the University’s contribution, through Education

As a comprehensive university, we educate across the disciplines, to a wonderfully diverse student population.

Students today are hungry for education and knowledge in every field, and in a time of economic crisis such as now, we can expect students to grow keener for education, not less so. This has been the pattern before in history, and the evidence at mid-year 2020 is that this growing appetite for education is here again.

Not unreasonably, we can expect the next few years to be a time when people, particularly young people, will want to go deeper, explore social and natural reality more fully. We should remember that, as well as economic challenges, there is a crisis of trust going on in the world: loss of trust in institutions, nations, political parties, perhaps loss of trust in facts themselves or an understanding of what truth is.

We can lament this. But we should also remember that universities like ours need to be a big part of the solution to this problem.

Universities are the last bastion of knowledge and understanding, across every field where there is authentic knowledge to be had.

What we represent is what brings people here from all walks of life and from every corner of the earth.

Universities are inherently international institutions. They thrive not despite a great historical tradition of attracting the best, most curious minds, from everywhere on the planet, but because of it. Our staff and our students both, are drawn here on this basis.

Our international students are a vital part of who we are, as a global institution.

Let’s remember that when Europe’s first universities emerged during the Middle Ages, they were highly international institutions, which is extraordinary when you consider how arduous travel was in those days. The University of Paris emerged in 1150: it had four different faculties, each with its own language.

The great motto of Paris (still), which could be another motto for Melbourne alongside postera crescam laude, was hic et ubique terrarum -- ‘Here and throughout the world’.  Our students come from here, from all the lands throughout Australia, and they come from every continent and nation on earth. That is an international university – a global university. It is what the University of Melbourne is, and I am determined will remain in the decades to come.

I have said often during the past year, and repeat it clearly tonight: the language of ‘markets’ which is commonly used in Australian higher education and media circles is deeply misconceived. When we start to describe students in terms of a market, then the marketization of universities has reached its apotheosis.

We must turn away from this view. Our students are dedicated, intelligent people: keen to learn, keen to make something of their lives.

I note that there is a brilliant motto – ‘The bravery to be you’ –prominently displayed at our Faculty of Fine Arts and Music at Southbank. The word “brave” can be used in a number of ways to describe many of our students, not least among them our international students, who leave home and family behind, usually at a young age, to come to be educated at Australian universities. But all of our students are displaying the courage required to put oneself to the test, to arrive in a new environment, and to attempt to learn deeply about a subject.  I am full of admiration for them, and take great pleasure in seeing them grow as people while they are here.

Our students are brave and committed people, and they go on being so after they graduate. One of the extraordinary things in this period has been the growing involvement of alumni with our work, more than 10,000 of whom have engaged with us for the first time this year, through digital events, volunteering programs and fundraising campaigns. Among initiatives funded by alumni, to the tune of almost a millions dollars, has been the Emergency Student-Support Fund, which has given vital cash assistance to more than 400 students hard hit by the pandemic’s effects.

Given who we are as a community of students, staff and alumni, we must not look on our students as a market, but as a great, historic opportunity to influence the next generation of workers, citizens, leaders, across many countries, not least, but not only, in Australia.  For anyone who cares about the world, it is an opportunity not to be missed.

This great opportunity is delivered through the education these students receive once they become part of our community. The trademarks of that education are thinking from different perspectives, coupled with the intellectual rigour to interrogate those different views.

This is one of the great benefits of our Melbourne Curriculum, with its emphasis on disciplinary breadth as well as depth. A great university education involves not just the acquisition of knowledge by students but also students learning to interrogate knowledge, to undertake inquiry, to come to understand and appreciate the processes of research. Among the benefits this kind of great education brings is the ability to think creatively. A reminder of how important creativity is came in a speech at the Glasgow School of Art, delivered recently by the Chief Economist of the Bank of England, Andy Haldane, on the theme of ‘The Creative Economy’:

What will be needed in future is not improved knowledge-factories producing more knowledgeable students. What will be needed instead are creativity-academies producing a more creative workforce. In future, we will not need people simply to get from A to Z - Alexa is faster and cheaper at doing that. We need people who can navigate everywhere. That means creativity not knowledge, imagination rather than intelligence, EQ as well as IQ.

These are well-made points, though I do take serious issue with Haldane’s argument in one important respect. The best kinds of creativity, I believe, rely on deep disciplinary knowledge and high intelligence. By analogy, I would argue that really great jazz musicians do not learn to improvise brilliantly until after they have put in the hard yards of learning every scale and arpeggio.

Creativity of this kind, based in disciplinary excellence, is something that Melbourne delivers. We can do this because of the marriage of traditional and contemporary excellence within many particular disciplines, as well as through our cross-disciplinary curriculum model.

As a result of the pandemic, this great educational enterprise has recently undergone a radical shift, caused by the need to transfer all our teaching and learning operations to a ‘virtual campus’ model.

I am full of admiration for the efforts of our academic and professional staff members – as well as our students – for the spirit, the ingenuity and the dedication with which they have taken this University’s teaching and learning online, with virtually no warning. It is a stunning effort.

Frankly, in view of the public health restrictions imposed by Federal and State Governments, the only alternative would have been to close the University entirely, with drastic consequences for our students, as well as many others in the community. The effort to keep our education going, to complete Semester One, to keep our students progressing towards successful completion of their degrees and qualifications, was simply gargantuan, and I thank everyone for it.

I will now turn to Research – and the vital and manifold contributions of the University in discovery.

The pandemic has brought into sharp focus the way that this University can respond with outstanding research during a time of crisis.

The University has made a very important contribution to public health in Australia and the world during the past year. Scientists at the Peter Doherty Institute were the first outside China to grow the SARS-CoV-2 virus in the lab, as early as February this year. Experts from our Faculties of Science; Medicine, Dentistry and Health Sciences; and Veterinary and Agricultural Sciences have made great, and continuing contributions in research, and in giving advice to governments and public health bodies to help everyone respond as well as possible to this public health challenge.

They have also appeared in broadcast and print media helping to keep the general public informed – a vital part of being a University embedded in its community.

Building on the vital work of curating and interrogating and advancing knowledge in the medical sciences, brilliant people from this community have made a unique contribution to the world.

And this contribution continues to grow. I mentioned earlier that the commitment of our alumni, and their willingness to be part of our ongoing work, is one of our real strengths as a community. We see this commitment from alumni, and that of other donors, not only for education but for research too. Donors have generously given to enable urgent Covid-19-related research at the Doherty, but they are continuing to give to other important work at the University too.  A good example is the Chair in Biomedical Engineering – recently established jointly between the Faculty of Medicine, Dentistry and Health Sciences and the Melbourne School of Engineering, with involvement of the Aikenhead Centre for Medical Discovery. This has relevance, certainly, for pandemic recovery, but it is about so much more than that too. Donors have enabled the establishment of this and many other research chairs and other initiatives in the past few years, and I want to record my personal thanks to them for their contributions.

It is not only donors with whom we partner to achieve excellent outcomes in a wide range of research fields.  I will mention briefly our important relationships with major private sector organisations.   We have had some very exciting announcements recently about partnerships between major international companies and the University, from such as Illumina, Telstra and CSL. These will be crucial as this University helps to rebuild our economy in partnership with Government and industry over the next few years.

We must keep firmly in mind the importance of all our research, and not become all-consumed by Covid-19, important as that is.  Do not forget that at the start of this year, we thought that recovery from the catastrophic bushfires would be our major task during 2020.

University researchers were, and are still at the front line of need in this area, and indeed of course in the related area of climate change.

To give a few examples, our Indigenous Knowledge Institute have supported submissions to the Bushfire Royal Commission on the role of cultural burning and traditional Indigenous land management practices.

Our researchers have also played important roles in recovery efforts, building on insights gained from their studies on resilience following the 2009 Black Saturday bushfires.

Looking wider still, university researchers are doing important work in climate change and sustainability:

  • through the Climate and Energy College, an international team of early career researchers pursuing interdisciplinary research on climate and energy systems
  • through the Melbourne Sustainable Society Institute’s Climate Transformations Research Cluster, and
  • through the Melbourne Energy Institute, which is working with community, industry and government on the transition to a clean energy system.

It is possible to adopt a pessimistic mindset towards the world’s many challenges today. But we need not be pessimistic. In fact, through the educational and research offering we can make, we hold the solutions to many of these challenges in our hands. That can be an inspiring thought for all of us, in these challenging times.

What this university can do is help to shape the thinking of the world in years to come. We can help the world navigate the major challenges it faces.

We also have a major role to play in improving people’s quality of life.

Those of you who know me will not be surprised if I indulge myself and mention music here. It has been powerful to see so many great musicians, from our colleagues at the Australian Chamber Orchestra and the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra, through a wide range of musical genres around our community and in the broader community, using technology to continue to perform and share music together, during the pandemic.  Really, how could any of us have survived the lockdown without music and the other creative arts?

As one example, in the Mongrel project, Music Theatre and Interactive Composition students collaborate each year to create their first performance works, usually presented in the Sturt Street Theatre at Southbank. This year, the students were challenged to meet the same collaboration and performance goals totally online. You can see the great results on the Fine Arts and Music website.

I should also mention how inspiring has been the persistence, in the face of this challenge, of our own Melbourne Theatre Company, as well as our partner organisations, across the creative and fine arts disciplines. These are very tough times for the arts in general, but I am sure that most would agree with me that this situation would have been intolerable without them.  How inspiring to be part of a University that practices the arts to such a high level, and teaches the next generations of performing and fine artists.

One of the most exciting developments in this domain has been the launch of our Cultural Commons project.

Cultural Commons is an inspired, visionary attempt to bring to life the unique artistic, archival and cultural wealth inherited by the University from generations of donors, philanthropists and alumni. It aims to integrate and embed more deeply our cultural treasures in the research and learning that takes place across the disciplines. These resources are of extraordinary breadth, reflecting three intersecting timelines across history:

  • the 50,000 years, at least, of Indigenous knowledge on this continent and elsewhere,
  • the 1000 years or so of European knowledge since the emergence of universities like Paris, Oxford and Cambridge, and
  • the colonial and post-colonial era since the arrival of Europeans in these lands.

The Cultural Commons reveal a knowledge community that connects directly, in important ways, to the knowledge of the world, with deep links to the past and future. This underlines our distinctive culture, in which knowledge across the disciplines connects with other knowledge, inspiring the new.

In conclusion: there are currently many tensions in the world. Many people in every sector of the economy have lost their jobs. There is fear abroad. This may contribute to worse things to come, in international relations, and in other economic and social challenges down the track for Australians.

In this dark period of history as we deal with the Covid-19 pandemic, I assert that our community must be a beacon. The University of Melbourne has a major contribution to make; it has been making it all along, and will continue to make it in the months and years ahead. We will recover, as a university community, as a society and as a nation.

As we recover, we will be stronger. We must aim to be an even better university. We are a foundational institution in this city and state and country.

We are an institution with a vital mission at its core, through our work in education and discovery; work that is more important than ever.

That is why we are here. Thank you all for being part of it.