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Faculty of Computing Health and Science - Honorary Doctorate speech

Dr Peter Larsen

Sunday, 16 March 2008, 6.00pm


Pro Chancellor, Mr Steve Abbott

Vice-Chancellor Professor Kerry Cox

Distinguished guests, Graduands, ladies and gentlemen.

This is a special night for all of us here at this Graduation Ceremony.

Its a long time since I was the recipient of an award of any kind and I must admit I thought my days were numbered in that regard when I graduated from Ohio State University in December 1985.

My apologies if I appear a little nervous because I am ! - but my usual role at such ceremonies is handing out awards and not being on the receiving end.

This is indeed an odd and unexpected turn of events.

It is, however, great to be here tonight in this honorary capacity - albeit in colours which reflect my wifes football team rather than mine! Not a big issue Vice Chancellor but maybe in future years you might consider a more bipartisan approach by including a touch of purple and green in the robes of this honorary award.

I must say, however, that regardless of the colours I wear tonight, I am both pleased and proud to be the recipient of this Honorary Doctorate of Education from ECU.

I have lived in Perth most of my professional life all in education - and through that time have seen ECU emerge from the shadows of a collection of Colleges of Advanced Education with limited international identity to an institution of substantial size offering a broad array of courses - and one which is today highly acclaimed in the higher education sector worldwide.

To be a recipient of a degree from ECU is something in which we should all take great pride. I certainly do! My own association with ECU has been primarily by way of my involvement in the establishment of what is commonly referred to as pathway colleges.

My colleague Dr Rod Jones (a recipient of this same award last year) and I approached ECU in 1994 through executives of the day Warren Snell and the late Brian Lawrence. Warren and Brian saw an opportunity for ECU and with their support and that of the Vice Chancellor, the University Council endorsed the establishment of that college on the then Claremont Campus of ECU. Following that decision all ECU executive, teaching and administrative staff lent their full support to the project.

Tonight my special thanks go to Warren Snell (Vice President and CFO) and Professor Tony Watson (Pro VC and Executive Dean) who embraced this initiative from the outset. To so many others on stage tonight who have helped us along the way thanks for everything. Its been fun! The rest is history. From that time we have established similar pathway colleges across Australia in association with other Australian universities - and in more recent years done the same in with seven universities in the UK and Canada. In every case we refer them back to ECU as our primary referee and as a university which shares our passion for improving learning opportunities for local and international students.

From very humble beginnings our group of colleges, which now operates as a public company on the ASX under the name of Navitas, has positioned itself as a successful and reputable provider of higher education - and other educational services - to local and international students in strategic locations across the globe.

Our concept was in fact quite simple, that being that students who marginally do not qualify for direct entrance to university in the first instance can in the right circumstances complete a degree. We provided those right circumstances and many thousands of students are today university graduates worldwide having commenced their higher education courses at one of our pathway colleges.

We have also, again with the support of the Vice Chancellor and his executive team, been privileged to give exposure to ECU in Zambia,Kenya and Sri Lanka where we manage, on behalf of the university, undergraduate and postgraduate degrees programs to many thousands ofstudents.

The situation in those countries is very different from our own. Primary and secondary schools have limited resources and universities are extremely difficult to access.

I recall visiting a secondary school in Africa and having met the Principal asked about which information management system they use within the school. He laughed and pointed me to an old IBM typewriter on his desk which had long run of out ribbon. That was, he said, the limit of that school's technology and that was just 2 years ago!

While we alone cannot bring about the sort of change thats really needed in some of the countries in which we operate, we can do our bit and in that regard we have at least started, with ECU yet obviously could do so much more.

The presence of ECU in countries like Zambia, Kenya and Sri Lanka in partnership with us has provided opportunities to students that would otherwise not exist. ECU and Navitas have been exceptional partners and we are hopeful that this will continue for many more years.

So for me, the journey to this award night began nearly 15 years back. At that time, the reputation of private providers was constantly under challenge and it was something we too struggled with in the early days. While we had our own personal and professional credibility from our prior lives in government and higher education sectors, our crossing to the dark side of private for profit sector brought with it some challenges.

We decided from the outset that if we were to succeed then one thing, and one thing only, would preserve our credibility and our reputations that being a focus on the delivery of high quality education services.

ECU took something of a risk in being the first university in Australia to take on a college like ours on their own soil and within theboundaries of one of their campuses and they too expected a lot of us by way of maintenance of academic standards and attention to student welfare.

I am pleased to say that we did not disappoint them.

I accept this award on behalf of all those within our colleges who like us have valued the guiding principles we established in the early days of this enterprise. To this day, those same values still exist in all of our institutions worldwide. Without any doubt at all, when I reflect on the success of Navitas as a company it comes down to two things

  • The quality of our people; and
  • The quality of our university relationships
Both have been fundamental to our success.

As with many of you receiving your awards tonight, the journey was not always smooth and no doubt each of you can recall the high, but more likely the low points of your travels to this evening's ceremony.

In the background though, for all of us, there is the usual safety net a safety net we often forget and equally often fail to acknowledge. For me that safety net has always been my wife, my parents, my children and my colleagues. To them I would like to say a special "thankyou". Dinner is on me later!

I think we all would like to think that as we progress through our lives we learn from our own experiences, the experiences of others and try position ourselves so that we too can make a difference to the lives of others.

As a young teacher with a passion for teaching mathematics I hope I made a difference but to be perfectly honest, I'm not sure. As a principal guiding younger teachers, I hope I made a difference but again, I am not sure.

What I am sure of, however, and I take great pride in this, is that my colleague Rod Jones, other local and interstate founders of this enterprise and I kept the faith in relation to our focus on quality and never compromised on this in favour of profit.

We have, I believe, changed attitudes to the private for profit sector of the education industry, showing that education can be delivered in a commercial environment but without jeopardizing the nature of the profession or its underpinning values in any way.

No doubt others will judge us on this, but we certainly believe that we have contributed to influencing individual and institutional attitudes inthis regard. We have, I think, made a difference and I hope you aspire to do the same in your own fields.

It really does give you quite a 'buzz'.

In the next 20 years, you will see even greater growth in the private education sector and we hope that our local colleges and their sistercolleges interstate and overseas will be seen as exemplars of excellence for others to follow continuing to provide opportunities to students who might otherwise not realize such opportunities and to do so with professionalism and integrity.

While history books will never record the contribution either we or ECU have made in this massive Australian export industry and the credibility now given to the private education sector, it is at least pleasing tonight to have the opportunity to thank the university and many ofits staff some on stage now - for supporting us in our endeavours. Together, we have made a difference!!

As graduates in specialised fields you can and should expect lots of changes throughout your career. Some of these changes you will questionand others you might challenge but whatever you do, don't become complacent and think that your learning stops tonight. Your degree maybe a passport to employment today but unless you engage yourself in some form of continuing education, today's degree will run the risk of being redundant 5 years from now. Like a passport, its need regular renewal!

Keep yourself alive intellectually, always be prepared to ask for help when it is needed, expect to make mistakes and learn from those mistakes. If you ignore such simple advice I personally think your professional life will be a struggle.

Edith Cowan herself had a tragic childhood but achieved so much in assisting women and children and overcoming some of the injustices of the legal system of the day. At 7 her mother died in childbirth and as a teenager her father, having shot and killed his second wife, was hanged for the crime. Married at 17 and a mother of 5 children herself, she worked for what she believed in and knew that education was the key to achieving social change. She was an amazing woman and an example to us all.

So to wrap it up, again my congratulations to you all and my thanks to the university community for honouring me with this award.The best part is I didn't have to sit for any exams!!

I receive it with pride and in the years ahead I will always reflect with great joy on the constant support of ECU and its people, our own people at Navitas and my family in helping me on my own journey through time.

We are luckier than most and I wish that some way others in this world could share the experiences and privileges we tend to take for granted.I will leave you with a quote which was in my favourite Year 11 mathematics book so many years back. The quote being 'there is no failure in life except to give up trying.'

The message of this quote has worked for me personally over the years and I think it has underpinned a lot of my own achievements since leaving school, where I too struggled at times.

It may help you also.

As you embark on your careers my closing advice would be to

  • value the importance of doing things well;
  • work hard;
  • never compromise your professional integrity; and
  • never give up.
It's not a bad formula! Thank you, congratulations and enjoy the night.
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