Universities: What do they do?
Professor Kerry O. Cox
Friday, 23 June 2006
(This is an edited version of the speech presented by the Vice-Chancellor, Professor Kerry Cox, on the occasion of his installation as Vice-Chancellor of Edith Cowan University at Government House, Western Australia, on 23 June 2006)
Pro-Chancellor Stephen Abbott, Chancellor Hon Dr Hendy Cowan, Professor Ron Oliver , Chair of the Academic Board, other members of Council, Mr Umile Gwakuba, President of the Student Guild, Mrs Janet Mannolini, representing the General Staff of the University, Students, Alumni, Fellow staff, friends of ECU, and friends of education. We have many distinguished guests. I particularly welcome His Honour, the Chief Justice of Western Australia, Wayne Martin; Archbishop Barry Hickey; the Hon Ken Travers, representing the Premier of Western Australia; other parliamentarians; Municipal leaders, other leaders of government agencies; community leaders; business leaders; and I join in recognising the presence of Chancellors Professor Geoffrey Bolton from Murdoch University; Mr Gordon Martin from Curtin and of course fellow Vice-Chancellors Peter Tannock; Jeanette Hackett; John Yovich; Kwong Lee Dow; and Jane Long, representing Alan Robson. Kwong Lee Dow is one of Australia 's running mid-fielders in higher education - has been for three and a half decades. He has had a significant impact on higher education, teacher education in particular. Thank you for coming Kwong.
Thank you, Chancellor, and the University Council, for choosing me as ECU's fourth Vice-Chancellor and thank you for installing me today. I pay tribute to my Predecessor, Professor Millicent Poole who did a wonderful job over a long period and I pay tribute also to Millicent's Predecessor, Professor Roy Lourens, who is with us today.
It is the case that creating a top University is a marathon; not a sprint. The University of NSW is a case in point. It started from humble beginnings in the 1950s. It is really one of Australia 's top universities, and very competitive by international standards.
Yesterday I was at a fine luncheon at Deacons hosted by Lee Verios. Peter Laurence, Managing Director of Pivot Group, introduced a nice metaphor dealing with very complex problems that were going to take a long time to solve. He said "...... it is a 1,000 mile walk". Creating a top university is such a walk. At ECU we have made a good start.
Universities are different places from most other organisations. That is generally not well understood, because universities are not necessarily so good at communicating what they do. And yet it is incumbent on universities to make sure that the communities that support them know just what they are doing and why they are doing it. Universities can be quite mysterious places. One of my great passions is to try to demystify what goes on in universities - and to provide much greater access and transparency.
What is a university?
I think for an organisation to be a university it should have five attributes. It should teach, it should do research, it should apply knowledge in timely ways, it should act to preserve knowledge and it should be self-governing. (I acknowledge Professor Emeritus David Caro, AO, for his significant influence on my thinking about universities.)
Teaching in higher education is embedded in the foundations of knowledge in the particular disciplines and/or professions. It is important that teaching inculcates students with an expectation that they will become aware of the current important issues in those disciplines and professions - the important questions, as well as the foundations of knowledge. One of the big problems we have with universities throughout the world to varying extents, but in Australia in particular, is what I call the tyranny of the TER. (I am paraphrasing Geoffrey Blainey). We have become trapped, I believe, into accepting that a person's TER is a really good instrument to judge suitability for higher education, without recognising that it shuts capable people out. Perhaps the best example I could give (we are a great sports loving nation) - is from Cathy Freeman (who would have to be one of Australia's top international sports people in the recent past, if not of all time). When she was a teenager she said she used to hide in cupboards so she did not have to do athletic training at school. I just wonder how many people we have in our communities these days who are in the equivalent position with respect to higher education; one way or another they hide from learning and thereby become shut out of universities. Almost certainly they lack confidence to develop their intellectual potential.
I think it is incumbent on universities, if Australia is to do well in the knowledge economy, to mobilise as much of the nation's head-power as possible: to locate it, mobilise it and support it. That means we have to have selection processes that go well beyond using only the TER, defensible as the TER is when you are trying to make decisions to exclude people from highly sought-after courses. So the mining of the future, when the minerals/energy boom subsides, is really the head-power of the people of the nation. We should be searching for ways to tap into people who have the motivation and potential to learn (which has evolved over thousands and thousands of years). We would want, when we teach in the particular disciplines and professions, to use the area chosen by our students to develop critical appraisal skills, to develop the ability to communicate and to continue the inculcation of integrity, and to continue, if not initiate, the inculcation of civic responsibility - of citizenship. And of course, to inculcate confidence to continue learning.
The second attribute of universities is discovery of new knowledge, research. I am quite uncompromising on this. I wrote to Dr Nelson when we were formally asked about teaching-only universities, and our Chancellor has heard me speak to Dr Nelson's successor, the Hon Julie Bishop, on this topic. In my view, universities should do research. That is not to say that all tertiary teaching organisations should do research. But if they don't, I would call them Schools - Tertiary Schools. I think the brand, "University", in Australia should be protected. There is nothing wrong, by the way, with Tertiary Schools. We have Pre-School, Primary School, Secondary School, why not Tertiary School ? There is a logic to it.
Organisations that do research are different from those that do not. Now that is not to say in the Olympics of the Human Mind, that every university should have professors for every discipline and professional area (for every sporting event, as it were). I think a choice has to be made and it might be some universities to a much greater extent, do more research than others but the conduct of research introduces mind sets and expectations and processes that lead to greater striving and greater achievement that permeate the whole organisation, and attract the best intellectual athletes from around the world. We must not be trapped into thinking that Carnegie Mellon is just a teaching and learning place in Adelaide ( South Australia ). Carnegie Mellon is one of the great universities (in Pennsylvania) in the Untied States and its particular activities in Adelaide are likely to be well supported by the research ethos and success of that University back in the United States (if in fact they don't conduct any research in Adelaide ).
Stanford University is one of the top universities of the world. Donald Kennedy in the 1990s as President, was addressing the staff at Stanford. At that time the profile of staff included some thirteen Nobel Prize Winners. He said, "Here at Stanford, we can do anything but we can't do everything". ECU can be bench-marked against Stanford, because, whilst unlike Stanford, "we can't do anything", but like Stanford, "we can't do everything!".
So at ECU we will make strategic choices with respect to research. I'll give just a few examples. The work of Will Stock and Paul Lavery on the environment, ecosystems, sustainability - big issue; the work of Rob Newton using the science of body movement to ameliorate disease and to prevent particular health problems - obesity, Diabetes Type II, and the like. Two hundred and fifty people from the community are waiting to join those activities which will be expanded when our new Health and Wellness building is completed next year. Donna Cross , an international expert on Child and Adolescent Growth and Behaviour and a fantastic contributor has helped to introduce significant reductions in bullying for instance, which has a lot of positive knock-on effects, particularly in terms of health and confidence and success of those youngsters. I could give you many other examples from our excellent staff at ECU.
Recently I have been greatly influenced by something Tom Griffiths wrote (he is at the Research School of Social Sciences at the ANU). It is a wonderful line in his paper: "the frontiers of knowledge are behind us". He was referring to a Royal Commission in NSW in the 19 th century, where they were investigating how the environment was being compromised by farming and related activities. Thousands and thousands of pages of evidence and analysis led to recommendations. Had they been implemented, the particular environmental problems we now have with our river systems would have been ameliorated, or even prevented. More than a hundred years later, that which we knew then has not been applied to the extent that it should. Yes, "the frontiers of knowledge are behind us"! Well, we are applying knowledge at ECU. I think of the work in Childhood Literacy of Judith Rivalland and her colleagues and our valued partners at other universities here and elsewhere. (We value the support of the Fogarty Foundation and I thank Brett and Annie Fogarty who are with us today.) I think Cobie Rudd's work in Nursing with her colleagues for Rio Tinto in Paraburdoo, promoting the health of those in the mining environment up in the North-West, is very good application of knowledge. In Business, Beth Walker's work with her colleagues in the South-West and in Perth , with local government and other agencies, on helpful adjustments they can make to their businesses through training to increase profit, community well-being and sustainability. These are academic experts who are linking with our various communities and delivering real outcomes. Aviation - in their training the students undertake shark-spotting on the coast; our Indigenous Health InfoNet. I could give many other examples of where we are applying knowledge for the benefit of our communities.
The preservation of knowledge
Universities should clearly hold on to that which is known, or make sure that it is preserved. And that goes beyond knowledge. It includes languages, music, and artefacts that have been created by humankind. Universities have a significant role in supporting museums. We have a particular issue at ECU at the moment, with respect to the Museum of Early Childhood - a wonderful collection there - and there is the issue of what it is that we can do to make sure that that is promoted and preserved (in circumstances where we don't have spare cash!).
Now the fifth point is that universities should be self-governing. This is very, very poorly understood. It leads to the mystery of universities. Universities are not arms of government. They are set up under their own legislation. They should not be arms of government. If the government wants universities to be government departments, it should legislate that way and then live with the electoral consequences of so doing. It might be that that is fine. You'd have to test it. But in the life of the mind you need independence (a kind of separation of powers), particularly from the government of the day. We need individuals in universities who are prepared to provide critical appraisal in their discipline areas as opposed to being Professors of everything - I would put that qualifier on their comments. Just because you are a professor does not mean to say that you can talk on whatever you wish, under the guise of being a professorial expert on everything. It is the case in universities that we prize originality, creativity and innovation. It follows then that you'll get a fair bit of turbulence when you bring together some world-class people and their supporting colleagues, who will have particular views about the ways their discipline should be developing. You see, for them, their peer group world-wide, is of the essence. Not, I am afraid to say, the Chancellor, nor the Council nor the Vice-Chancellor, nor the senior team. They are much more committed to making sure that they are internationally competitive in their field rather than the servant of some corporate line from the Council. So the leadership of the University, and we have good leaders at ECU, whom I have had the honour of joining, is working with the University Council, to bring coherence to all of that academic energy and insight and independence, without undue constraints, in cost-effective and timely ways.
The key for us is to provide public discourse, and critical appraisal of issues that are in the public domain and also provide our expertise in more focussed ways with particular businesses, agencies and so on. So our staff will be able to speak as experts in their discipline area, without speaking, of course, for the University, or the University Council. They don't have the automatic right to do that.
Edith Cowan great Australian: Pioneer for a better world
I want to go back to the 19 th century when there was a big argument in Australia about whether women should have the vote, and whether women should become Members of Parliament. In South Australia Hansard records in the all-male Parliament, a speech of a Member along the lines "I ask the Honourable Member if his wife becomes a Member of Parliament, who is going to wash his clothes, who is going to iron his shirts, cook his meals, look after his children? Who is going to clean the house?". It is not that long ago and we are deluding ourselves, funnily enough, if we think all of that is fixed up. It is not. When Edith Cowan stood for Parliament in Western Australia at that time the press included such gems as "she was showing a heartless neglect of her husband and children". Her youngest child was aged thirty (years). When Edith Cowan was elected, The Age , which then was thought of as a paper of repute, expressed congratulations, but also fears that other women may follow, leading, and I quote 'to neglected homes, sacrificed on the altar of political ambition'.
In the course of human progress many changes are held back by prejudice and ignorance. I suspect the tyranny of the TER is one such example. Edith Cowan's struggles bear testimony to those sorts of prejudices and handicaps that creative and fair-minded people face. Edith Cowan in Parliament, and in the community, demonstrated passion and commitment and she had strategies to make a difference, to start that thousand mile walk. She had a vision for achieving education and equality of rights for all. Her pioneering and enlightening advocacy makes her legacy a very fitting influence on the ethos of Edith Cowan University - the University with her name.
For many the world is nowhere near as wonderful as we presently sometimes think it is, in this booming WA economy. We have something like 30,000 children (in the world) under the age of five who die every day from diseases that are readily preventable at low cost. We have microcosms of that in Australia , particularly in our Indigenous communities. We have in Australia fourth generation unemployed. Can you imagine that? We have youngsters at school who have great-grandparents, grandparents and parents, none of whom have ever had work. What do you think is going to happen to those youngsters? We have serious problems with the environment and with sustainability and Australia , as-a- whole, given the resources that we have, is amongst the worst offenders in the world per capita. We are seriously, at a global level, not just Australia but elsewhere, compromising the ecosystems of the world by using energy as if there is no tomorrow. We don't know how to value water.
Stephen Hawking has had attributed to him a rather glum way forward. Recently he said the way we are going on earth, humankind might not survive and what we ought to do is start working out how we are going to get humankind permanently onto the moon and/or onto Mars a hundred years from now so that we do survive as a species. A more simple solution would be to work on how we could make life on earth more inclusive, more sustainable, more harmonious, rather than saying this is a bit of mess here, let's go elsewhere.
It is clear Chancellor, Pro-Chancellor, colleagues and friends that we have work to do. On the thousand mile walk, we have much walking to do. I look forward to being one of the workers and one of the walkers, at ECU in the years ahead. Thank you for having me as your fourth Vice-Chancellor.