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UK Prime Minister Theresa May shimmys her way on to the stage at a Conservative party conference on Wednesday. Image: Oli Scarff/AFP/Getty Images

Unis could ‘become irrelevant’: lessons for Australia from a UK VC

On Wednesday, Dancing Queen Theresa May urged her party to unite despite divergent views on Brexit. Glasweigan Professor Graham Galbraith has a similarly broad, communal message for Australian universities: think big, together.

In Perth to deliver the 2018 Vice-Chancellor’s Distinguished Oration at Edith Cowan University on Friday, like the UK PM, the Vice-Chancellor of Portsmouth University initially uttered the much-maligned ‘B’ word.

“You will be delighted that I don’t intend to focus on Brexit itself,” he assured the audience. Instead, he explored its causes, in the context of his lengthy speech, ‘Universities are central to societies’ future success – but only if we learn some lessons’.

How is the UK’s separation from the European Union relevant to Australian higher education? Galbraith says it is indicative of social and economic change sweeping through the Western World, resulting in troubled democracies, which in turn impact universities.

The two big changes are the rise of populism and the ‘Fourth Industrial Revolution’.

In addition to socio-economic ills affecting universities, Galbraith argues that universities have a responsibility to help tackle them. “It would be wholly wrong to think it is only politicians’ responsibility to address the problems our societies face,” he said.

He urged Australian universities to learn a lesson from the inaction of its UK counterparts: get on the front foot. “If universities do not change, and the world does, we may forever remain a problem child or – probably worse – become irrelevant,” he said.

He granted Campus Review an interview in advance of his speech, to unpack some of the complex, global themes he will address.

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