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Professor Brian Schmidt, vice-chancellor of the Australian National University. Photo: Supplied

ANU’s goals for 2025 and the relationship between universities and democracy

The Australian National University's vice-chancellor Professor Brian Schmidt delivered his ‘State of the University 2021’ address this week, describing how critical universities are to Australian democracy and four of the institution’s top goals for 2025.

Situated in Australia’s capital, Schmidt emphasised the importance of ANU in protecting, nurturing and promoting Australia’s democracy. However, the vice-chancellor cautioned that significant challenges to democracy lie ahead.

“We live in an era of increasingly unsustainable polarisation,” he said.

“Extreme forms of populism, at times and in places approaching fascism, have gained a dangerous foothold in our world.

“They are leading to violence and autocracy, besieged parliaments and mass arrests, trade wars and fears for future peace. Perhaps most seriously, populism is stopping us from addressing the most existential problem of all – climate change.”

For Schmidt, the “traditional defenders” of democracy – the public service, the press and the political class – have become enfeebled by rapid and at times insidious social and technological change. According to the VC, the decline of these institutions means that “only the universities have retained the public’s trust”. 

Universities therefore hold a “special responsibility to show leadership”, Schmidt argued.

“The job of universities is the pursuit of the truth, and without truth, democracy cannot function and cannot adequately address the great problems facing the world,” he said. 

“Facts are being altered. News is being labelled ‘fake’. But the problem goes deeper. 

“The biggest problem in the world today is the undermining of the Enlightenment belief in the primacy of the truth. 

“Without agreement about the truth, we don’t debate, we fight.”

A student experience equal to the world’s best

While 2020 was an annus horribilis for many sectors in Australia, including the tertiary sector, Schmidt adopted an optimistic outlook on what was learnt and can be utilised in the years to come.

“[2020] forced us to innovate and find new ways to teach, learn and collaborate virtually. We learned a lot,” he reflected.

“The temptation is to use these learnings to do things cheaper and easier, neglecting quality. Let’s face it, it would be easy to make the university into an online supermarket of  inexpensively delivered courses and divert the savings into research or other funds. 

“My response to that is: Over my dead body.”

Signalling that students want to return to campus, ANU’s VC emphasised the need for its teachers to “be more than just people who stand at the front of the lecture hall or before a video camera”, instead teachers who can connect with their students in richer ways.

“This might include fewer lectures, and those that we do deliver will be memorable and sophisticated, utilising technology. Teaching needs to be an exchange of ideas between  students and teachers.”

“The lecture need not be dead, but nor should it be a crutch for poor pedagogy.”  

Conducting research that can transform society

Schmidt explained that ANU’s second goal for 2025 was to produce “world-leading research that can transform society”. Importantly, the VC said such research must concentrate on areas of strength within the university, as well as areas that will address “the nation’s vital needs”.

“This sort of excellent academic work is never easy. It takes energy and commitment. And often it goes unheralded. But that doesn’t make it unimportant,” Schmidt said. 

“What all this shows is that investing in long-term research and training to produce excellence isn’t an indulgence, it’s a social and economic necessity. And this makes investment in universities one of the most prudent things a society can do. 

“In a world as turbulent as ours, who would want to risk doing the opposite? Here at ANU much crucial long-term research is meeting with success.”

Schmidt then outlined some of the university’s research that will have a tangible, transformative effect on Australian society. These include detecting bushfires more quickly and accurately and deploying measures to prevent or at least mitigate disaster. Other transformative research at ANU is focusing on closing the gap in life expectancy between Indingeous and non-Indigenous Australians, as well as the health and financial implications of loneliness.

Meeting our national responsibility through a renewed compact with the Australian government

Schmidt asserted in his speech that, as Australia’s national university, ANU must continue to play its critical role in nation building. While acknowledging the university has been well supported by special grants in the past, the VC emphasised that such funding “is now needed like never before”, considering the vast and serious challenges facing Australia and the world.

“There’s so much more great research we can do if we have the resources,” Schmidt said. 

“In the increasingly fraught world and region we inhabit, and increasingly dangerous climate we live in, Australia’s national university and its national government are natural allies. They have to be. 

“The old tensions between the Australian polity and the Australian academy must now be recognised as an indulgence belonging to less dangerous times. The consequences of  university knowledge and political leadership not working together are now simply too high. 

“But put knowledge and enlightened government together and the possibilities are limitless. The nation can be transformed.” 

Be an equitable and inclusive university of choice 

The final goal for 2025 outlined by Schmidt was the need to attract and “get out the very best of our people”, which will involve becoming a more equitable and inclusive university.

“We have to make ANU one of the best places in the world at which to work and study if we are to attract the best teachers, researchers, students and support staff,” he said. 

In creating a more inclusive and equitable university of choice, the VC recommended a flexible work environment and staff appointments that more accurately reflect the Australian population (more women, First Nations peoples and other under-represented or traditionally marginalised groups).

Schmidt also referred to the importance of ANU providing a lively, human-centred workplace.

“As your vice-chancellor, I can’t match the financial packages being thrown about across the academic world, but I can make this a better place to work than any of them – by keeping this as a university with a far more human scale than our competitors, by ensuring it is a respectful as well as a lively place, and by offering you the expectation that the work you do  will be relevant to society and noticed by the political leaders and national policy makers  across the lake,” he said. 

“Becoming that better place will be a major competitive advantage for us.”

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