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Chancellor’s Welcome to State of University

Welcome address by the Chancellor, Professor the Hon Gareth Evans AC QC FASSA FAIIA, ANU, 9 February 2017

It is my great pleasure, as Chancellor, to welcome you all to this Inaugural Vice-Chancellor’s State of the University Address.

I begin by acknowledging the First Australian on whose traditional lands we meet, and paying my respects to the elders of the Ngunnawal people past and present, and any other elders here present.

And in that spirit, I invite Tina Brown to open our proceedings by delivering a Welcome to Country.

This is a great new occasion for this great university of ours – a first in our 70 year history. It’s an occasion to celebrate what we have achieved, but also to reflect very hard on what more we need to do both to maintain and further enhance our status not only as a great Australian university, but one of the great universities of the world.

To be just that was exactly what our founders, back in the 1940s, envisioned the new national university to be. Introducing the ANU Act into the Parliament, the Chifley Government’s Minister for Post-War Reconstruction, John Dedman, spoke of us as an institution which would ‘take its rightful place amongst the great universities of the world.’

And the greatest visionary among them all, Nugget Coombs described our role in the post-War context as nothing less than being an ‘intellectual powerhouse for the rebuilding of society’, grappling with problems of poverty, unemployment, social and racial justice, and international misunderstanding, especially in an Asia Pacific context.

Our founders were not an immodest lot, but looking back it would be fair to conclude that their confidence was justified.

  • The quality of our research is attested not least by the six Nobel Prizes won by our staff and alumni (four of them for work done directly on campus) most recently of course by our Vice-Chancellor Brian Schmidt –more than any other Australian university, and more than most of them put together.
  • The quality of our teaching is attested, at least in part, by ANU graduates ranking as Australia’s most employable, and amongst the most sought-after graduates by employers world-wide,
  • The quality of our campus experience, as the most residential of the major Australian universities, has always ranked us highly.
    • And through the extraordinarily generous philanthropy of Graham and Louise Tuckwell, we are expanding further campus accommodation and have instituted the nation’s most generous and farsighted scholarship scheme.
  • We have also delivered on our unique national responsibilities, particularly as the primary resource for Australian engagement with the Asia-Pacific,
    • And as a major contributor to the national public policy debate – not least through the recent establishment of the Crawford School’s Australian Leadership Forum, now described as ‘Australia’s Davos’.

Our achievements overall certainly have been well recognised – the first Australian university ever to be listed in the top 20 overall, in the QS World University rankings; now listed (along with the University of Melbourne) in the top fifty in the world in the Times Higher Education’s world rankings; and now listed at an extraordinary seventh in the world , sitting in between Oxford at 6 and Cambridge at 8, in the just-released Times Higher’s narrower list of the ‘world’s most international universities’,

But we all know that we cannot rest on any of these laurels. The higher ed. scene both nationally and internationally is becoming ever more competitive, and with major Asian universities now attacking the charts in the way they are, it is going to become ever harder to hold these rankings at their present level, let alone improve upon them. And we are absolutely not immune from all the multiple challenges that are confronting the Australian university system as a whole:

  • Maintaining financial sustainability in a one-size-fits-all system
  • Meeting the needs of financially and socially disadvantaged students who are hardly any higher a proportion of student numbers than they were decades ago
  • Maintaining the perceived relevance of a university education, if we can’t adapt our teaching methods to new demands and expectations
  • And – although this not as big a problem as it is becoming in the US and elsewhere - maintaining totally intact, with no qualifications whatever, the traditional idea of the university not just as another contributor to the national economy, but as the home of free speech, of the clash of ideas, of unconstrained argument and debate.

It is in response to all these challenges that the ANU’s Strategic Plan for the next five years, which the Vice-Chancellor is about to introduce to you, has been crafted. It spells out all the major ways in which we need now not just to talk but to act:

  • To build further on our culture of academic excellence -- in research and innovation, and in teaching and learning
  • To fulfil our unique responsibilities as the national university, with the special support we receive from the Commonwealth government in that capacity – responsibilities to national institutions and policymakers, to Indigenous Australians across the continent, and in relation to the Asia Pacific region in which we live
  • To achieve equity, in every relevant dimension, in the way in which we conduct ourselves, and in the contribution we make to broader Australian society
  • To build a culture of collegiality and engagement – across ANU, and beyond ANU; and
  • To build an unrivalled campus environment, physically in our architecture and landscaping, socially, and culturally.

The basic document being launched today – with its dozen key performance indicators -- is not the whole story. It needs to be, and will be, supplemented by much more granular plans and indicators in each of the thematic areas I have mentioned, and then by even more granular plans and indicators, as appropriate, at the operational unit level.

But what this basic Strategic Plan does is address all the really big, framing, questions, and hopefully in a usefully sharp-edged and focused way. And it is crucial to appreciate that its creation has already involved not just the usual Chancelry suspects, but a huge range of additional inputs from the wider staff and student community.

It is a joint product, first, of the University Council, which as Chancellor I chair, and which is responsible for setting the overall mission and strategic direction of the university and ensuring that its management is delivering effectively; second, of the Vice-Chancellor and his senior executive team, who have to drive the whole implementation process; but also, third, of the whole ANU community.

Under Brian’s very active and engaged leadership, forums were first held right around the university to invite input on what our vision should be. Through those forums we explored together what it means to be Australia's national university, and the big questions of what the university means to us, what it could be, what it should be, and where it is going.

Then in the next part of the process we talked about the specific policy approaches and mechanisms we would need to embrace to realise the key elements of that vision. We were overwhelmed with the strength of the response from our community, and I would like to thank everyone involved - those who participated in the forums, who provided feedback, and who wrestled in the various Working Groups with the detail of bringing it all together.

Most of all I would like to thank our new Vice-Chancellor, Brian Schmidt, who – as you have probably heard me say many times, but I’m happy to keep repeating it -- we saw, when we on the Council appointed him, as being a brilliant, inspirational communicator, whose vision, vitality, and visible global stature we hoped and expected will take ANU to places it has never been before. We haven’t been disappointed. Brian’s leadership –with his willingness from day one to get down from the stage, roll up his sleeves, and engage in a truly genuine and collegial manner – has been extraordinarily well received right across the ANU community, and has already given a dynamic new dimension to our profile locally, nationally and internationally.

In the hope and expectation that he will continue that record today as he delivers the Inaugural ANU State of the University Address, I invite to the lectern Vice-Chancellor Brian Schmidt.