by: Dianne van Eck
This year saw the return of the Universities Australia Conference 2023 to its usual February timeslot. The last time it was held in February was 2020, and a month later COVID implications started to impact on our way of life. Can you all still remember the last 3 years? It seems to have faded in my memory somewhat. I was trying to recall the times when there was no traffic in the streets and everyone was working from home – it is somewhat difficult now.
The important thing to note about a February conference, is that firstly, we didn’t have to pack winter clothes! It was beautiful weather in Canberra for most of the week other than a violent thunderstorm that dropped over the city for an hour exactly at the time of the Welcome Reception! But more importantly the leadership classes, presentations and panel discussions were excellent, generating stimulating ideas for further conversations across the sector. Hopefully, this set the scene for attendees to return to their universities and buoyed by the ideas, set in place their new strategies. I found the overwhelming sense of potential, and change was compelling throughout the three days. The full agenda encouraged deep thinking about important and relevant issues.
I attended one of the Leadership Masterclass led by four Vice Chancellors where they shared their thoughts on leading through change. It was interesting to hear where the Vice Chancellors from the University of Melbourne, University of Newcastle, Australian Catholic University and La Trobe University had points in common and where they differed in their perspective and approaches. None of the Vice Chancellors was immune from the impacts of change over the past decade.
The Opening Keynote Address by Professor Megan Davis (Co Chair The Uluru Dialogue, Cobbie Cobbie Woman of the Barunggam Nation) moved many people to tears with her poignant portrayal of the history of Aboriginal peoples in Australia and the importance of a ‘Yes’ vote for The Voice to Parliament referendum to occur this year. Other sessions covered topics including provision of access to all students, engagement with India’s National Education Policy 2020, and how universities integrate with their communities, working in tandem with local government.
Sessions on Work Integrated Learning, national security and universities, future proofing the workforce with international graduates, innovation and excellence in learning and teaching, the power of research, embedding Indigenous knowledges, University governance, the student experience, jobs and skills all generated many questions and quality discussions.
The Chief Defence Scientist, Prof Tanya Munro AC spoke about elevating relationships to long term partnerships, the Star Shots work, changing the approach to ‘war gaming’, the use of emerging and disruptive technologies including uncrewed submarines (the Ghost Shark). She spoke of two core concepts: acceleration – getting emerging technologies out their faster and asymmetry – shifting mindset by not thinking about resource gaps but by thinking differently to have intelligent choices. There is a need for more graduates in the science and technology pipeline which universities can contribute to with promotion of those courses to prospective students. Further differentiation of universities is essential to grow scale in specific areas.
The Hon Jason Clare MP’s presentation at the Conference Dinner in Parliament House (always a wonderful experience (add photo of Minister at Conf) provided a sense of hope and achievement, applauded by all. This cannot be said for the Shadow Minister’s address the following day. The Conference Dinner always provides a great opportunity to catch up with friends and colleagues. Here Adrienne Niewenhuis, Lucy Schulz, Sandy Orgeig and I caught up to discuss the days when we all worked with the late Emeritus Professor Denise Bradley AC at UniSA for ten years. This was a period of significant change which we all believe showed UniSA was well ahead of its time.
Professor Mary O’Kane AC provided a thought provoking session on the role of the University Accord (Discussion paper released that day) and the consultation undertaken to date. Prof O’Kane stressed the importance of future thinking (30 years plus) and stressed ‘Be Bold, Be Brave’. The Discussion Paper includes 49 questions which the panel has determined are the key areas to explore during the next phase of consultation. Everyone and anyone is encouraged to make a submission with ‘good submissions taking apart an issue, providing data and evidence to suggest big ideas’. There are many areas that require attention, which the sector needs to address to future proof it, provide a seamless student experience and rewarding work environments for staff. I look forward to this opportunity in shaping the DVE Submission.
The Conference provided a wealth of information. I commend Universities Australia and the organising committee for preparing such a comprehensive program.