Sunday, 25 September 2011, 6.00pm
Graduands and your families and friends
Chancellor, I am aware that universities do not bestow these honours lightly, and I most humbly thank you, the Governing Council and the university community for honouring me in this way.
I also consider it a privilege to be presented with this Honorary Degree by yourself - a man whom I have long admired, and who exemplifies the four values of this university - integrity, respect, rational inquiry and personal excellence.
Oh that there were busloads of Henry Cowans occupying the seats in our parliaments today.
As well as being honoured, I am moved to share this ceremony with a group of graduates from diverse cultural, social and no doubt economic backgrounds - and graduates from a skills based university such as did not exist when I received my first degree in 1965.
I am particularly delighted to receive this honour from this University, named to honour one of the great women contributors to Australia - a woman who worked tirelessly for the betterment of our society.
For several years, I was Pro Chancellor at the University of Western Australia. In this capacity I attended many graduation ceremonies every year - so I know the protocol for these events. The first and most important duty is to congratulate all of this evening’s graduands.
Earning a university degree is a major achievement. For some it is easier than for others, but for all it is an achievement of considerable magnitude, requiring dedication, hard work, sometimes great sacrifice - and for many at this ceremony it has meant long periods away from family, friends and familiar surroundings.
I warmly and sincerely congratulate all of you.
The role of your families - no matter how near or far they may have been - your friends, your partners and others who have assisted you over the years during which you have been studying, must also be recognised.
Graduands this evening come from Schools of Computer & Security Science, Engineering, Exercise, Biomedical and Health, Natural Sciences, Nursing, Midwifery & Post graduate Medicine, Psychology and Social Sciences.
All of which relate to areas of life which are becoming more and more important – both here and in the countries of origin of many of the graduands.
Your university’s motto – freedom through knowledge speaks volumes.
Surely the Arab spring owes much to a better educated population.
In Palestine there are 15-17,000 new graduates every year. There are virtually no jobs for them to go to. This is a very dangerous situation.
It is now more than 40 years since I was presented with my first degree certificate at the University of Western Australia, and I would like to reflect on some of the changes which have taken place both in universities and in the wider community during these 40 years.
The University of Western Australia in the 60’s was the only University in the state – there are now 5.
The population at UWA was around 2,000 – it was possible to know by sight almost every student - > 90% men – which is how the few of us liked it. Now there are more women than men at most Australian Universities.
It was possible to mix with students from all facilities.
It was possible to spend an enormous amount of time in student affairs and other extra curricula activities, and still pass.
There was time for regular debate and exchange of ideas.
There was time for fun.
We knew that employment was certain. The question was not "would we get a job", but “which job would we choose”.
Those few women students also knew that we would not be paid the same as our male friends, even if we were performing the same tasks and we knew that those who joined the AMP or parts of the public service would have to resign if they married.
Sadly, women’s salaries are still below those of men performing the same tasks – unbelievable!
The majority of our colleagues had names like Smith, Jones and Robinson. There were just 3 students from Africa – Roger Chongwe from Zambia; Heatherwick Mbale from Malawi and Robert Holmes à Court from Zimbabwe.
And our education was without cost – it was free – even for those few students with names of non European origin who were here under the old Colombo Plan – a wonderful scheme where hundreds of overseas students were educated at no cost at Australian Universities – Far different from now when overseas students are seen as revenue generators.
There was no HECS in those days.
These occasions were called ceremonies - not ceremonies - a pronunciation which implies complaint and disappointment.
We drank beer not chardonnay.
No one had ever heard of balsamic vinegar, and we smoked like chimneys, blissfully unaware that it would probably kill us.
The 60’s were a time of intense political activity amongst students.
There were real issues to be addressed -
The Vietnam War and conscription were major preoccupations.
In the 60’s politicians visiting universities wore very old suits. They knew they would probably be bombarded with eggs and tomatoes.
Somewhere in my possession is a photograph of the delegates at a National Union of Australian University Students Conference I attended in 1965. Most of you here today would recognise many of those present. They are amongst our leaders today - in politics, education, business, the arts and the professions.
Culturally we were still clinging to the coat tails of the United States and Great Britain but there were hints of the possibility of an Australian culture emerging.
The 60’s marked the arrival of the contraceptive pill which meant young women could lose their innocence without the chance of pregnancy for the first time in history. The arrival of the AIDS virus ensured that the sexual freedom this brought about was relatively short lived.
Our trading partners were different, as was what we traded.
Internationally, tensions were caused by the polarisation of the Soviet Union and the United States, and Australia was in the thick of it with our Government sending troops to Vietnam and our students marching in the streets to try to stop them.
Now we seem to be in a clash of fundamentalism - Western materialist fundamentalism as exemplified by the Tea party in the US, versus fundamentalist Islam. As before, we are in the thick of it.
The big difference this time, however, is that although Australians and students did march prior to the invasion of Iraq and Afghanistan, students have been conspicuous by their absence since the invasion. Where are your eggs and tomatoes?
Whether this is a result of increased work loads, fear of unemployment or lack of conscription I don’t know.
In management terms companies in the 60’s were still employing a lot of people – the unemployment rate was less than 2%.
Now the unemployment rate is reported to be similar – depending how it is counted.
But we’ve seen the great rise in casual/part time work.
For part time work, read full time insecurity.
We hear constantly of major skills shortages.
Amongst the employed, work patterns have changed dramatically. People change jobs 4, 5 or 6 time in their lives.
Those in work, work longer than they ever have before - longer than anywhere in the OECD, and disparity in salary levels is growing exponentially. First time in our history where it is possible to earn more as a company executive than owning your own business.
We certainly weren’t involved in conversation about the future of the planet, water conservation and sustainability as we are today - congratulate your university on its commitment to sustainability.
A major change I perceive - a most upsetting one - is that it appears that as a society we care less about each other – a politician friend assures me she received far more messages of support for cattle in Indonesian abattoirs that she has ever had for asylum seekers in Australian waters.
We certainly read a lot about the erosion of human rights in our country. It would appear that there is a crisis in aged and health care amongst all Australians, but particularly amongst our indigenous people, and yet many Australians seem unmoved by this.
Naturally, there are many other changes I could have raised, but these give a hint of the world into which you are graduating.
You may feel I have painted a pretty depressing picture. So be it - I am often depressed about things. However, being depressed does not diminish my faith in the Australian people, nor stop me wanting to change things.
I certainly hope you all feel the same. You are all strong and fit, well educated and young. These qualities mean you are privileged - you have the skills and I believe the obligation and responsibility to do something about the issues I have raised.
Attending graduation ceremonies teaches you that you are expected to give advice.
Here is mine in - 4 parts.
Don’t believe what you see and hear in the media - learn to be critical - Go and see – put on a backpack and go and see the world.
Develop your listening skills. Learn to sort out the wheat from the chaff. Try to read the signs. Ask “why?” often.
Get to know yourself.
If you underestimate your abilities you will waste a lot of talent - If you overestimate yourself you’ll be a pain in the neck. It has become fashionable to have a personal trainer - for the body. My suggestion is that you search out a personal trainer for your mind - in other words a mentor - someone to challenge you in positive ways - I don’t suggest a therapist - yet.
Someone to lead you through your thinking processes and increase your own expectations of what you can achieve.
The return on this investment will be much greater, as your mind has the capacity to expand and improve for the next 60 years, whereas your body has probably already reached its peak.
Be a participant in life, not a spectator.
Don’t underestimate what you can challenge - what you can change.
Don’t be afraid to venture outside your comfort zone. My own training was in organic chemistry but I have spent a great deal of my time during the last 30 years working in the Arts.
Your thinking ability sets you apart and if applied correctly enables you to ask the right questions.
What set the students in that 1960’s National Union photograph apart from the pack was their genuine interest in the wider community and a desire to understand and influence it.
Look around you.
Can you identify future leaders in all spheres of life amongst your colleagues here today?
If you can’t, then I’m afraid you may just have to take on the responsibility yourself.
I wish you all long, useful and fulfilling lives.