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Faculty of Health, Engineering and Science - Occasional Speaker: Professor Tarun Weeramanthri

Professor Tarun Weeramanthri

Sunday, 31 January 2016

New graduates, Chancellor and Members of the University Council, academic staff, ladies and gentlemen.

My thanks to Professor Chapman for the invitation to address you today.

Let me start with a phrase, which I haven’t been able to find the source of, but which resonates with me.

“The sea of knowledge knows no boundaries.”

That phrase reminds me that learning does not begin or end with a university education.

All of us here today are swimmers in the sea, on our own continuous journeys of learning, without boundaries, whether at home or at work, whether paid or unpaid, whether planned or by chance, whether we are graduating today or are here to support those graduates.

Two years ago, I had the experience of sitting proudly in the audience while Karen, my wife, received her post graduate diploma in early childhood education from ECU. She is now happily employed as a Steiner kindergarten teacher. And the formal ECU training was terrific - both essential and highly educational. But university study is but a segment in a lifetime – it builds on your strengths as a person and prior experience, and is a launchpad for further learning in the workplace.

A good university like ECU bring together the theoretical and practical, fuels students with a desire to learn and keep learning, and equips you with key skills to do so.

But there is a navigational challenge here. The growth of knowledge used to occur in a linear fashion in pre-industrial times. The rate of growth then accelerated with the industrial revolution, and is now growing exponentially in this modern era of digital technology. We hold more computing power in smartphones these days than was needed to put man into space. The amount of material appearing on the internet doubles every 12 months. Faced with that, how can we swim rather than drown, and does that change the role of universities?

First the good news, this continuous flow of information and knowledge can be enlightening and empowering.

One of the reasons I love being in public health is that is so broad and diverse. The goal of promoting health and well being and preventing illness and disease, has no or few boundaries. I love the fact you can read the paper in the morning from front page to back, and it counts legitimately as work. Whether it is an obvious health related story like the spread of Zika virus, or the impact of alcohol, a lifestyle story, an item on water recycling, road safety, or drugs in sport, they are all topics of general discussion, which fall directly or indirectly within the scope of public health.

Further I appreciate the more recent advent of social media, its ability to gather information from a huge variety of sources on any number of topics, deliver it literally into the palm of your hand, and connect you with others (both locally and globally) interested in the same topic. I am an active user, particularly of Twitter (@tarunw), to learn and listen but also to communicate with the public on matters of public health.

But this continuous flow of knowledge does have a downside. The sheer volume can be frankly distracting and anxiety producing.  And it is sometimes hard to know what is important anymore, when the significant and the trivial are kind of given equal status.  An example, if you switch on your digital TV tonight, and watch the international news, and an item comes up about a humanitarian crisis overseas, there will also be scrolling text at the bottom of the screen with updates on tennis scores from the Australian Open, share prices etc.  I find that disconcerting because I need to feel differently about those things. I need to be able to separate them.

On a bad day, I can be accessing random facts rather than able to discern patterns, and it can affect my sense of who I am. Am I a local Perth resident or a global citizen, a seeker of news or a consumer of entertainment, or all of the above?

On a good day, the information can provide a sense of connection. I remember in mid-2014 checking the Twitter feed using the hashtag #ebola. It told me that a news conference was being stream lived from Europe, which I then tuned into. I saw Joanne Liu, President of Medecins Sans Frontieres make an impassioned moral case for a greater global response to the crisis in West Africa. The argument was compelling and stimulated me to take two months leave last year to work with the World Health Organisation (WHO) in Sierra Leone, doing work coordinating the activities of 32 foreign medical teams in the Ebola response.

So about a year ago, I found myself attending another kind of graduation ceremony, a joyous one, in a school hall – for half a dozen survivors of Ebola who had been discharged from a nearby Ebola Treatment Centre some 50 km from Freetown, the capital of Sierra Leone, and were being welcomed back into the community. I was asked, on behalf of WHO, to present a certificate to a young man who had survived Ebola but lost multiple members of his family. Talking with him afterwards, he told me he had just left school and his simple ambition was to go to university. For that young man, in that country, a formal education was one of the few paths to success in life.

For some like him, and for many in the audience today, access to the sea of knowledge is not smooth but requires persistent courage to survive and travel over barren land to get there. Congratulations to all of you graduates here today in Nursing and Midwifery, Exercise and Health Sciences, and Medical Sciences. You have done the hard work and are here on merit. Many others – mums and dads, brothers and sisters, family and friends - have provided support and made sacrifices for you to do so, but also been part of your conversational world, and continue to contribute informally to the success of your education. Creativity, empathy and generosity are essential to progress in a modern workplace and are learnt most often in the home. The formal and the informal work together.

So to return to the phrase ‘The sea of knowledge has no boundaries’ the role of the university can be seen to be a life raft for some, a navigational guide for others, helping us to separate and differentiate the ephemeral from the enduring. But above all else a modern university must promote a sense of connection and service to others, because when it comes down to it, none of us can know everything, none of us can individually master the data deluge or flood, the waves of new information and knowledge that arrive each moment. We have to create systems, partnerships and networks to share generously our knowledge and experiences, to connect in a meaningful way the local to the global, the universal to the particular.

‘Reach your potential’ is a great motto.

To do so, we have to navigate the sea of knowledge.

And we sink or swim together.

Thank you.

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