The Universities Australia 2020 Conference kicked off with a bang, literally. The Welcome to Country by Mr Paul House included a wonderful performance on the didgeridoo, with excellent percussion support by Minister for Higher Education Dan Tehan and Universities Australia boss Catriona Jackson.
The three keynotes that followed - Tehan, economist Justin Wolfers, and retired High Court Justice the Hon Michael Kirby AC CMG - were diverse in their focus, yet carried strong messages to an audience dealing with the dual fallout of bushfires and the COVID-19 virus.
Without doubt the standout was Kirby, whose speech one observer accurately described as a "velvet glove, wrapped around an iron fist." Kirby simultaneously praised the sector for the essential role in the civic life of our democracy, while also calling out the sector to renew its commitment to "the student experience," with a particular focus on the international students being affected by COVID-19.
Hon Michael Kirby -— Sally Kift (@KiftSally) February 26, 2020
Threats to freedom
Gay rights & discrimnation
International students’ contribution
Speaking up for what’s right
Benefits of free, public education
Social compact b/w unis & society
We are honoured by his presence #RealLeadership
"Without doubt the standout was Kirby, whose speech one observer accurately described as a "velvet glove, wrapped around an iron fist."
His final words, spoken after his formal remarks were concluded, accurately summed up his assessment. He warned the audience that the 100,000+ Chinese students currently unable to travel to Australia deserve more than "honeyed words" and expressions of sympathy. If our universities don't make genuine gestures of financial support, they can expect this crisis to be remembered by the overseas community for decades, if not a generation.
"If our universities don't make genuine gestures of financial support, they can expect this crisis to be remembered by the overseas community for decades, if not a generation."
Michael Kirby: "In today’s world of digital media and social networks, the way we respond to problems for the student base overseas resonates throughout countries from which we derive our students." Well said, Justice Kirby. #uaconf2020— Jack Goodman (@jackaroo2000) February 26, 2020
Wolfers, an Australian who is a high-profile economist at the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor used his platform to show why economists are simultaneously beloved and despised by the public. In his discussion of short and long term economic trends, he presented myriad data points, then caveated every statistic with two mutually exclusive interpretations. When question-time came, he cleverly avoided addressing any of the audience's questions directly. It was a master-class in academic obfuscation whose sparkle succeeded in bamboozling many in the audience.
"It was a master-class in academic obfuscation whose sparkle succeeded in bamboozling many in the audience."
Finally Tehan predictably maintained the agenda the Government has been pursuing. Primarily, its objective is to encourage universities to continue to take responsibility for their own operations, to not look to Canberra for specific or tangible support, especially around the fallout from COVID-19.
At the same time, he reiterated his commitment to rural and regional universities, in order to close the gap in enrolments and degree attainment for populations that live more than 45 kilometres from a university campus.
Encouragingly, both Tehan and Kirby made similar points about the centrality of students to the tertiary agenda. Tehan said:
"One lesson we can all take away from this virus is that the student must always be at the heart of what drives us in education."
And Kirby followed up with:
"Unfortunately, in their race for growth, it seems highly likely that, in many cases, the investment of Australian universities on the teaching side of their mission has not kept pace with their pursuit of research excellence."
If nothing else, it seems part of the fallout from COVID-19 will be a renewed commitment to engaging with, and supporting students, particularly with solutions that are resilient to disruptive events, be they social, economic, political, or public health related.