Chancellor's Inauguration Speech

Inauguration of Mr Michael Chaney AO as Chancellor of the
University of Western Australia
19 March 2006

Your Excellency Dr Ken Michael AC, Governor of Western Australia and Mrs Michael, Vice-Chancellor Prof Alan Robson and Mrs Robson, Chancellors and Vice-Chancellors of other universities, Distinguished Guests, Ladies and Gentlemen.

It is a great honour for me to address you today at my inauguration as Chancellor of this distinguished institution.

The University of Western Australia has had a huge influence on my life and is a place for which I have some of my fondest memories. It is also, I recall, a place in which, at examination time, I had some of my more stressful experiences.

Members of my wider family also have deep connections with this university. I estimate that no less than 25 degrees have been bestowed upon my brothers and sisters and their offspring in this hall, and if you include their partners, the number is close to 35. It is a great thrill to me that most of my family members are here with us today.

I do not underestimate the responsibilities of this role. We live at a particularly challenging time for universities in Australia and charting a successful path through the next few years is going to require the dedicated efforts of everyone involved in the institution – from the Senate to the Vice-Chancellor and members of the academic and professional staff.

Over the past 30 years our universities have been subject to sweeping change – in the way they are funded, to the rules and constraints that apply to them and to the competitive landscape.

It is a natural human tendency to view change negatively – to see it as destroying something valuable and, particularly, I think in the case of universities, as diminishing strong, worthwhile traditions.

I have that same tendency but I must admit also to viewing change as inevitable and natural. That may partly be a result of the education I received in the Geology Department just 100 metres from here, where I learned that since its birth 4,500 million years ago, the earth has never been static even for an instant. Countless events occurring everywhere at all times combine to effect constant change in the world around us.

It is a particular and common human failing to consider the status quo as the natural order of things; and in rejecting change, to ignore the fact that other things have changed too, rendering what was the status quo unsustainable.

Being reconciled to change, I prefer to see it as an opportunity rather than a threat; and that’s why I am excited about the future of this university.

Let me take a moment to consider why universities exist.

The conventional wisdom in Australia is that they serve two functions; namely, to teach and to conduct research. In fact it is not legally permissible in Australia to call yourself a university if you don’t carry out research, an approach strongly favoured by those who believe that research is the essence of a university; but in fact that was not always the case historically.

Baron von Humboldt founded Berlin University in 1809 on this model but it took the best part of a century to be adopted and in the USA its adoption was never universal.

John Henry Newman’s lectures of 1852, published as ‘The Idea of a University’ strongly opposed any place for research in a true university.

For most of their history Oxford and Cambridge did not conduct much at all in the way of what we would regard as research – indeed at Oxford the pursuit of research in the natural sciences was regarded as too vulgar an indulgence to be engaged in by gentlemen. And it was not until the late 1940s, after the Second World War, that any Australian university produced a home grown PhD graduate, when the University of Melbourne actually delivered two! In fact well into the 1970s the PhD was a qualification only possessed by a minority of academics in Australian university departments of humanities, commerce, education and law.

While it is thus not a universal truth to say that research is the essence of a university, it is true to say that it is a fundamental strength of the University of Western Australia. This institution has a very proud record of producing outstanding research in a range of fields. What an enormous thrill it was to see two of our colleagues, Barry Marshall and Robin Warren, awarded the Nobel Prize for Medicine recently.

As I shall suggest a little later, this strength of UWA is one we should nourish and which should equip it well in the modern competitive environment.

And what about the nature of the teaching in which universities engage? – Or specifically, the balance between the academic and vocational.

Chairing a committee for Harold Wilson’s British Government in the 1960s, Lord Robbins outlined what he thought were the essential elements of a university education; namely to

  • Expand the powers of the mind;
  • Advance learning (ie though research);
  • Teach people that background of culture and social awareness upon which a healthy society depends; and, finally,
  • Teach people how to earn a living
The fourth element is one about which debate has raged in university circles over the last century – between those who favour the academic and intellectual over the practical (or between education and training), and vice versa. It is a debate that has accompanied the introduction into this university of courses like commerce, computing and business studies – courses which academic purists have argued are better provided in technical colleges.

I must say I would be the first to salute a university which found a way to remain solely dedicated to intellectual formation and debate. In fact, such institutions exist as small liberal arts colleges in the USA.

In Australia, however, Government edicts have required the merger of smaller institutions in the name of wider course variety and reduced administration costs and it is simply not feasible for universities without a vocational orientation to exist.

As Andrew Norton has pointed out, traditionalists’ single minded defence of one idea of the university ignores the implications of large scale economic and social changes that have massively increased the significance of higher education in Australia over the last half century.

Foremost among these has been a long-term change in the labour market and, in particular, a huge increase in jobs requiring high skill levels. In the late 1940s, just over 10 percent of employees in their 30s worked in high skill occupations. By 1975 that figure had risen to 35 percent. This change required a much higher proportion of the population to attend university. In the early 1950s just 30,000 students were enrolled. This increased to 300,000 by 1977, 600,000 by 1995 and is now more than 940,000.

At the same time, expectations of students have changed dramatically. A few years ago, the Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) did a survey of students enrolling in higher education and found that, overall, 96 percent were there for vocational reasons. In comparison, 94 percent of TAFE students responded that they had enrolled for vocational reasons!

Interestingly this outcome would have warmed the heart of one of the driving forces in the formation of the University of Western Australia, John Winthrop Hackett. Hackett was determined that UWA should not model itself on the older universities of England. As Fred Alexander observed in ‘Campus at Crawley’, Hackett believed “that the United Kingdom was being left far behind by new countries, and by Germany in particular, in adapting universities to the needs of the day, in the practical questions of life upon which, after all, we depend for our daily bread”.

The challenge, I think, is to develop and maintain a balance between the pursuit of knowledge per se and vocational relevance. I am very much against the premature narrowing of curricula to vocational streams and very much in favour of exposure to mind-broadening, intellectual theory. I have been concerned over the years at some graduates’ narrowness and their inability to understand issues within a broader context; but a good modern university also imparts skills important in employment, including oral communication, problem solving, and teamwork.

One thing we should rely on our universities to be is places where debate can be engaged in freely and without fear or favour. All of us, I am sure, support the principle of diversity within the university; but one of the most important aspects of this is diversity of opinion.

This includes diversity of opinion within the student body. We cannot, for example, accept a situation where somebody is shouted down and prevented from speaking at a forum because his or her views don’t accord with popular ones; or where a Federal Minister cannot accept a bona fide invitation to address a student organisation because his or her safety cannot be guaranteed. Both of these have occurred in recent times at Australian universities.

This is a matter of simple civility. I am not suggesting that one must meekly give in to opponents – liberal civility is fully consistent with robust criticism and passionate advocacy – but it does mean that the expression of hatred, contempt or distrust of adversaries is ruled out.

And so the role I see universities playing is one of teaching, conducting research and fostering and nurturing new ideas.
The contemporary university also has an important role of engaging with the general community, something the University of Western Australia does extremely well.

Well, how threatened are those roles by the extensive changes that have occurred in the university sector over the last three decades? Let’s consider those changes.

The first is in respect of how universities are funded. In 1981 the Commonwealth provided around 90 percent of the income of a typical public university. By 2002 the figure was just 40 percent and still falling. Higher domestic student fees, both government subsidised and full-fee paying, have helped fill this gap but government financial support has not kept pace with rising costs, and increasing reliance has been placed on revenues from full-fee paying overseas students and from external research funding.

Changes introduced by the then Federal Education Minister Dr Brendan Nelson in recent years have enabled universities to fill the revenue gap by charging higher fees for HECS students and increasing their numbers of full-fee paying students. The provision of Commonwealth loans to Australian fee-paying students has been introduced as an incentive for universities to expand their full-fee numbers.

The negative aspect of this, of course, has been to make a university education less affordable: but given the greatly increased numbers now attending university in Australia, permanent Commonwealth budgetary constraints and the unwillingness of Australians to pay higher taxes, I believe it is unlikely that any future Federal Government will feel able to bear a materially higher proportion of university costs.

One way in which the student fee burden can be lightened is through the provision of scholarships. In the USA this is a major factor in enhancing equity in the system. As an example, around 70 percent of students at Stanford University enjoy scholarship support.

The achievement of this, however, would require an upheaval in the way Australians view philanthropy. Based on figures I’ve extracted from Tax Office publications, United States citizens are 20 times as generous as Australians when it comes to personal charitable donations. US citizens’ contributions per head to tertiary institutions alone are over four times Australians’ donations to all charitable causes.

I salute the efforts of the Development Office at this university to redress this situation, and the donors who have given generously. Some good progress has been made but we would all agree there is a long way to go. Critically, we need to change the mindset of university graduates – particularly those who have been successful financially – to one where they realise the critical role played by the university in their success and wish to give something back.

The second development over recent years that has made life more complex for universities is that hand-in-hand with making new funding sources available, the Commonwealth has tightened its system of central control. Public universities are faced with the dangerous situation where the tertiary sector is being deregulated while the individual institutions are being further regulated. Extensive regulation leaves little room for innovation and operational flexibility.

Under current rules the Commonwealth, not the university, decides institutional size, scale, location and course profile. The Commonwealth decides what courses can be taught and how many students should be enrolled in each.

Efforts by the university to respond to market demand by under – or over – enrolling students result in prohibitive financial penalties.

Such inflexibility becomes a huge problem in the context of two further developments in the tertiary sector, namely globalisation and the rise of private education providers.

Today our universities are being ranked in global league tables which, whatever one thinks of their validity, increasingly have an effect on enrolments.

There are moves afoot internationally to establish standard degree structures. Melbourne University has already flagged its intention to move towards the common US model of a general three-year undergraduate programme followed by advanced courses in a two-year masters or three-year doctoral programme. This is at least partly in response to the proposed adoption in 2010 of the similar “Bologna Model” by European universities.

Melbourne’s plans, if implemented, pose a potential threat to other Australian universities. The institution may be perceived to offer a superior, albeit more expensive, product and is likely to more aggressively recruit staff and students from other states – a process which has, in fact, already begun. This is of particular concern in Western Australia in view of demographic projections which suggest that this state’s population of 15 to 24 year olds will still be increasing beyond 2010 when that in other states is falling.

Regulatory constraints also threaten to hamstring public universities as they attempt to compete with private institutions. To date this has involved only a small number of not-for-profit universities but it is likely that the competitive landscape will change dramatically in the years ahead.

The American Carnegie-Mellon University has now won approval to establish a campus in Adelaide and others may follow. In addition other, for-profit higher education providers in Australia are lobbying for the right to call themselves universities and international providers threaten to attract our students to internet based courses. The University of Phoenix, which operates on this basis, now employs 17,000 instructors and boasts nearly 300,000 students. It does this without any expensive research facilities and campus buildings.

Increased competition requires an organisation to adapt and the currently restrictive regulations applying to Australia’s public universities will need to be dismantled if they are to prosper.

But will the emergence of new competitors pose a threat to the University of Western Australia? I do not believe they need to.

On the contrary, they may enable us to more precisely define the type of people whom we would seek to welcome into our family of students. These are talented people who value an academic education which is informed by relevant research conducted within the institution; but they are people who want more than just a degree. They are people who want preparation for leadership. An academically excellent credential is but one element of this.

These are the people who will also understand the importance of taking part in activities such as debating, music, student politics, student polemics, and of course acquiring the physical fitness and team spirit which competitive sport does so much to further. They will take advantage of the wonderful opportunities to form new friendships with other talented people in a stunning physical environment. It will be their first opportunity, as young adults, to engage in the battle of ideas, and to immerse themselves in aspects of cultures not otherwise available to them.
In fact, I believe the emergence of private for-profit, low budget, “no frills” universities will require us to move what these new providers regard as unnecessary and costly extras from the periphery to centre stage.

And what of this university’s aspiration to “achieve international excellence”? Is that realistic for an institution based in Perth? I strongly believe that it is.

At Wesfarmers, where I was Chief Executive for 13 years, we adopted the mantra: “There’s no reason we can’t be the best in the world at everything we do.” Having worked in other countries and studied for a brief time at one of America’s best known universities, I really believed that. In Australia we have a very good education system, a solid work ethic and an innovative population and it struck me while overseas that we could match the best the world had to offer.

The key to our corporate success, however, was to be selective in what we tackled. We never believed for a moment that we could be world beaters across every possible industry.

The same applies, I believe, to our universities. To be successful in the long run, we need to play to our strengths, to our natural advantages.

As an example, in research, these advantages can come in a variety of forms. One is our geographic location which should give us the ability to conduct world-class research related to resources, both mineral and agricultural, biodiversity, water management or indigenous art. Another advantage might arise from the innovative actions of people in the past, like those who gave us a world-leading population health data base; and another might be the presence amongst our faculty of world-leading scholars.

The important thing in my view is to avoid spreading ourselves too thinly. We simply do not have the scale or resources to be all things to all people.

Importantly, we need to welcome change as a new opportunity and be prepared in turn to change the way we operate in order to compete effectively. Above all we need to ensure that quality remains at the heart of everything we do.

The University of Western Australia has a proud history of preparing leaders for public life in the professions, in business, in the civil service, in academia and in the arts. If we are all prepared to be open minded, I can’t think of any Australian university in a better position to enter the imminent new competitive environment, and better placed to succeed.

I trust that the service I am now expected to provide as Chancellor, and honoured to give, will be worthy of this truly great university.