Speech to 7th International Conference on World-Class Universities (WCU-7), Shanghai, China: Managing a group of the world's leading research-intensive universities through fragile political settings

8 Nov 2017
By Vicki Thomson

I am, as always, privileged to be invited to China.   

As you know, I am here today as Chief Executive, representing Australia’s eight leading research-intensive universities, the Group of Eight. 

In this position, I represent a group which has seven of its members proudly ranked in the world’s top 100 universities.   

Our rankings and our teaching quality have been held in high regard by China and, as a result, the Group of Eight is currently home to around 53 per cent of China’s quality students who choose to study at a university onshore in Australia.

At the Group of Eight we take this responsibility seriously, as we equip those young graduates and budding researchers to thrive wherever they may choose to work and contribute in the world.

We are especially proud of our graduates who return home to China.

Tomorrow I will coincidentally meet a number of them in Beijing and also their employers.

And in fact, it was only a few weeks ago that Professor Brian Schmidt, Vice Chancellor of the Australian National University, a Group of Eight member, spoke highly of such Chinese alumni, who he called extraordinary, ambitious and bold, saying, and I quote…

“There are at least 40 CEOs, Managing Directors, Presidents or Chairs of Boards; directors in the Ministry of Commerce, Ministry of Finance, Ministry of Agriculture and the State Ethnic Affairs Commission; plus, other high ranking officials in government departments, companies, banks and universities.”  he said.

For the Go8 it is indeed positive to build such strong personal relationships in China; always a mark of the strength of the on-going relationships forged through education between our countries.

It is why I also like to think I can make an informed contribution to this elite forum, assisted by my more than 20 years of regular visits to China.

Here I have, over time, forged friendships, and lasting business relationships. 

And, I hope through those years, I have gained a valued understanding of Chinese culture and your global ambitions through education.

It is fair to say that from Australia, we watch with awe, and more than a little envy, at the determined prioritisation of university education and research in China. 

Through my years of visiting here I have seen a Chinese university sector rise inexorably to now successfully challenge the best in the world.

There are now seven Chinese universities in the top 200 of the Times Higher Ed ranking -  up from just two in 2016. 

And, of course, in the ARWU ranking   there are now nine in the top 200 - up from five in 2013.

That is an extraordinary feat.

China now has a university sector that can provide the teaching and research quality that can independently secure a nation’s future economic strength. 

However, as we all know – one can do even better through international collaboration and it is therefore very nice to see that our G8 universities are some of the most co-published with China globally with the main copublishing partner being the Chinese Academy of Sciences and an increasing interaction with large Chinese enterprises.

If we couple that with the thousands of Chinese PhD students we are educating, then these relations are set to strengthen further in the future.

Those are indeed powerful political settings. 

In Australia, with my Board of Presidents, I am managing a leading group of research-intensive universities through what are fragile political settings.

We do not allow those settings to affect the quality of what we deliver, in teaching or in research, but, it would be disingenuous to pretend that it has been, or is, simple or easy.

As a group of universities we are as pragmatic as we are determined. 

We know we must survive and thrive despite the fragile settings. 

We owe that to our students, and to Australia’s economic future, because there cannot be a knowledge economy without a thriving university sector at its core.

As guests joining us today from other nations can attest, we in Australia, are, sadly, not alone. 

The common question is how do we withstand the fragility we are confronted with? 

How, in Australia’s case, does the Group of Eight set and pursue strategies to achieve excellence in shifting sands where we have had six Prime Ministers in 10 years and 9 Education Ministers in a decade, each with a different teaching and research policy agenda?

Interestingly, Australia now has arguably its most highly-educated Federal Cabinet in our nation’s history. 

But they have yet to translate this into supporting policy settings that would see Australian universities and their research capacity nurtured.

In 2017 Australia has 39 quality and well-regulated public universities which very much need, and crave, coherent and sustainable policy settings; 

…and we need the Australian community to support us so that those settings are provided to us by Government, not just for our benefit, but for the benefit of the community and of the economy. 

Yet, as we advocate strongly for this, how do we also withstand a cultural misalignment, one where, a higher percentage of our community than ever before can now access higher education, but, in parallel, universities are encountering a tide of community and political hostility.

It is ironic that the more available to the community a university education in Australia has become, the less the community has trusted us. 

Last month in a speech in London, Professor Glyn Davis, Vice Chancellor of the University of Melbourne, a leading Australian University and a Group of Eight member, put the issue very succinctly. 

“It seems strange,” he said, “that institutions which educate the young and invent the new should be under threat. What could be more optimistic, more worthwhile, than a university. Yet evidence abounds of a rising tide of criticism and hostility toward public universities.”

Not long before Professor Davis’ speech we heard from Alistair Jarvis the new Chief Executive of Universities UK.

“In the UK, it seems to be open season on universities.

Whether it is attacks on the value of a degree, problems with the tuition fees system, senior staff being overpaid, or problems with international students, universities are this summer’s scapegoat of choice.

Whether it is open season or silly season, it has attracted the attention of some prominent commentators, who have taken time out from their summer breaks to catalogue the litany of failings in our university sector.

While universities should certainly be scrutinised and held to account, much of this criticism has been based on little in the way of evidence or context. Indeed, some attacks have lacked any factual accuracy at all.

We’ve seen a post-truth summer of misinformation, muddled argument and even a little malicious intent.

Let’s see if we can follow a post-truth summer with an evidence-based autumn. Universities are forces for good in our world. Let us be clear about the powerful and positive impact of our universities, they
  • transform people’s lives through access to higher education; 
  • support local communities by creating jobs and providing services; 
  • strengthen economies through skills, research, innovation; 
  • improve our society through the impact of our research, through invention and discovery;
Universities are not in crisis, they are positive and powerful institutions delivering deep and lasting value to communities in all corners of the world, but universities do have some serious reputational issues that need addressing.

It is time for universities to address this crisis of confidence.

We have a major challenge. Now is the moment for universities to shine and prove their value...

Today, I want to issue a rally call…

It is time to fight back…

We need to respond to these reputational challenges, robustly, with evidence, promoting our values, promoting our impact and engaging with diverse range of audiences.”

UK Cabinet Minister Michael Gove said, referring to universities, “people in this country have had enough of experts”.

And according to research published by the US based PEW Research Centre in July, 58% of Republicans and Republican-leaning independents said colleges and universities had a negative effect on the way things are going in the country, while just 36% said their effect was positive. 

Yet it is universities the world over which develop and equip those experts to take the world forward.

There is actually a Chinese proverb which buoys me as we face this.

It says “when the wind rises some people build walls, others build windmills”.

I would like to assure all of you that Australia’s Group of Eight is busily building windmills.

History shows us just how resilient universities always have been.

The oldest existing continually operating educational institution in the world that issued degrees was founded in Fez Morocco in 859 AD. 

While the purpose of the European medieval universities was stated to include “training professionals, scientific investigation, improving society and teaching critical thinking and research”. 

That remains who we are and what we do.

That we have come this far over centuries of extraordinary global flux, turmoil and transformation points to a sector that has great capacity for agility, flexibility, responsive thinking and enormous fortitude.

It is this history of university resilience that enables us to draw strength for the long term while we are fighting the, hopefully transient, fragile political and community settings.

It is this history which enables us to view, as the wind has been rising, our current issues as road humps rather than walls.

We do fight, and will continue to fight, negative forces by best combating them through example - through our results, our quality graduates, our highly successful alumni, our research, our global standing.

We reinforce that we are, and will continue to be, a teaching and research destination of choice.

Australia lays claim to being the most successful multicultural society in the world, and this makes the Group of Eight an exciting and welcoming place for students and young researchers to be part of, whether temporarily or permanently. 

Importantly we are a destination of choice from a bedrock of academic freedom, of making sure our students are exposed to new ways of thinking.   

This means our graduates are of high quality because we have assisted them to become respectful critical thinkers. 

We are a destination of choice because we have, as a key principle, that everyone is free to challenge ideas, and to counter perceived wisdom, with the ability to feel comfortable being challenged. 

As Aristotle said, “it is the mark of an educated mind to be able to entertain a thought without accepting it”.

Our students and academics thrive with those values and those freedoms, as do our researchers and our academics.

We know we open eyes and minds.

And while there are times, like now, where there are Government and media concerns being expressed that our freedoms have been manipulated or misused by a minority, we will deal with it…..

…… but we cannot and will not let it curtail the strengths that make us such a quality destination for so many domestic and international students.

It is really a very simple ethos that we abide by.  It states:

The Group of Eight enrols quality students and delivers the world quality graduates, the leaders of tomorrow.

As we fight the “rising winds” we are very focussed on that ethos and increasingly vocal about why it is so vital to society.

We proudly communicate that everyone in society - whether they attend university or not - needs the benefits of a university education in their daily lives.

We are communicating that a world without all that universities can give back to society is an impoverished world both economically and socially.

Would our communities want to live without the extraordinary medical breakthroughs that save lives daily? Or wifi which is now accepted as a basic need?

Would they want a world without safe roads and bridges, cars, fast trains and planes?

Would they want a world that does not strive to feed its people through research outcomes in agriculture and horticulture? Provide clean drinking water?

Would they manage in a world that does not have the science to fight waste, pollution and carbon issues?

The future is in our hands and we are there to deliver it. 

The world relies on and has always relied on its universities to drive research, critical thinking and ideas. 

That has not changed.

In conclusion, it is my strong view and the view of my Presidents that universities are custodians of a long tradition of inquiry that encapsulates the Socratic tradition – that encourages the questioning mind. 
  • We remain high-performing, high-ranking universities by our capacity to leverage global trends and deliver economic and social benefits 
  • We remain ever-vigilant to national and international forces as change occurs at an increasingly rapid pace, and we respond accordingly 
  • We must plan for the long haul – we are here to stay 

Yet as history shows, our real resilience springs from a far deeper place -  from our love of learning – from our innate and insatiable curiosity of the world around us - and from questioning and understanding our place within it.

I look forward to now discussing our future and this current complex situation we find ourselves in, across so many nations.

Thank you

Media contact:  Vicki Thomson    Group of Eight Chief Executive   on +61 417 808 47