Chancellor, Vice-Chancellor, distinguished guests, graduates, ladies and gentlemen.
Firstly my sincere thanks to the University Council for conferring on me the honorary degree of Doctor of the University. It is an award I will treasure.
I’d like to talk to you today about our University, our ECU. I’ll touch on its origins, identify some of the major, indeed transformational, changes that have taken place over the last 25 years or so, and outline the key attributes or characteristics of the institution which I believe have facilitated this transformational change.
ECU’s precursor institution, the Western Australian College of Advanced Education (WACAE) was established in 1982 following the amalgamation of a number of small colleges. When I joined the WACAE in 1985 it was a relatively small and unsophisticated institution that was primarily engaged in teaching undergraduate courses in teacher education and business.
However it had ambitions, and the leadership at the time set in place a series of development strategies that began the transformation process and achieved some significant outcomes, including the College being designated as a university, Edith Cowan University (ECU), in 1991. Successive strategic initiatives and developments over the last twenty years have given us the distinctive, well regarded and highly successful ECU that we know today.
So what are some of the major changes that taken place over the time I have been at WACAE/ECU?
- Firstly the institution has experienced very substantial growth in student numbers. It has grown from some 6000 equivalent full time students in 1985 to over 25,000 students today and now enrols a very substantial number of international students who greatly enrich the ECU experience.
- There has also been great diversification and maturing of the institution’s academic profile. ECU now offers more than 400 courses at various levels in most academic discipline areas and is also developing a strong and focused post graduate and research program.
- There has been a very extensive program of campus development and consolidation, probably greater than that experienced by any other university in Australia. When I commenced in 1985 the WACAE has 4 relatively small campuses at Claremont, Nedlands, Churchlands and Mt Lawley, and planning was underway for a campus in Bunbury and another campus to serve the northern suburbs of Perth.
- I was pleased to be involved in the development of ECU’s fine campus in Bunbury which is making an important contribution to the educational needs of the South West of the State.
- As for a campus in the northern suburbs, State Government agencies and WACAE, in the nineteen seventies, considered two potential sites, Whitfords (Hepburn Heights) and Joondalup. Fortunately, those involved in the decision making took a long term view and chose Joondalup and it has been exciting to see the growth of our presence at Joondalup from a couple of rooms in the local authority building to the fine world class campus that we have today.
- While developing new campuses has been important for ECU’s long term development, closing older and smaller campuses and relocating student places to areas of greater need has been equally important and a distinguishing feature of our ECU. With the endorsement of State and Commonwealth authorities, campuses at Nedlands and Claremont have been sold to the University of Western Australia and the Churchlands Campus has been subdivided and sold off in stages for residential housing. In all cases proceeds from the sale of campuses have supported further development of the remaining metropolitan campuses at Joondalup and Mt Lawley.
- Closing campuses and relocating student places and staff is a complex and difficult exercise but it is important that public institutions adopt strategies that best serve the needs of their communities. It is inconceivable to us now that people living in the northern suburbs of Perth would not have ready access to a locally based comprehensive university.
- The campus development and consolidation program has also provided the opportunity for ECU to design campuses and buildings that are distinctive and aspirational and reflect the mission and vision of the University. It would have been easy to replicate more traditional university buildings on the developing campuses but ECU has set out quite deliberately to innovate and, as a recent ECU publication puts it, develop “spaces that encourage inspiration and collaboration, room for reflection and thought, invigorating spaces, and provocative ones”.
ECU has been highly innovative and has transformed itself, perhaps more than any other Australian university, and has succeeded when a number of institutions with similar backgrounds in other States have found the going much harder and have ended up merging with other institutions. Our ECU is now a large and diversified university that undertakes high quality teaching and research and is well located to serve its communities.
And the successes keep coming. I was pleased to hear from the Vice-Chancellor this morning that ECU had been named in a prestigious list of the best 100 universities in the world under 50 years old.
These are fantastic achievements for a university that is barely 20 years old and we have to ask what attributes or characteristics does our university have that have enabled it to achieve so much in such a short period of time.
I think there are a number:
- Firstly, ECU’s commitment to engagement. It is engaged with and listens to stakeholders including students, employers, the three levels of government and others in the communities it was established to serve. Engagement generates ideas, understanding and trust and ensures that stakeholder views are reflected in ECU’s offerings and activities.
- Awareness of and responsiveness to the external environment is also important. There have been many changes in higher education policy over the years and there will be many more in the years to come. ECU has successfully read the policy environment and has responded appropriately.
- ECU is also very strategically focussed. It is not locked into the past, and has in my view always been prepared to review activities and set new directions to meet emerging needs and priorities.
- ECU is also agile. It does not just identify opportunities but it has shown itself ready to act and to act quickly when necessary.
- Resilience is another key attribute. As punters well know, not every horse turns out to be a winner and organisations need to be able to quickly refocus when things don’t turn out as expected.
- Finally it is the people who make an organisation and I see ECU people, whether they be students, Council members, or staff, as open, friendly, cooperative, creative and challenging and with a great capacity to work together, rather than in isolation, to achieve outcomes.
So there we have it six attributes:
- Engagement with stakeholders;
- Awareness of and responsiveness to the environment;
- Strategic focus;
- Capacity to work together.
These are among the attributes that I think have enabled ECU to achieve great success in a relatively short period of time, and indeed I think they are attributes that can be of value to all of us in our lives at home and at work.
To those of you graduating today I hope that your time at ECU has been enjoyable and productive. You have worked hard and made sacrifices to earn the awards you receive today and you now embark on another phase of your lives as graduates of ECU. My very warmest congratulations and best wishes to you for your success and happiness in your personal and professional lives.
7 October 2012