The University of Newcastle, Australia

New Year’s resolutions to be collaborative and courageous

Monday, 30 January 2017

There is no doubt that the day after Australia Day marks the time when the memories of the summer break have well and truly faded. As we speak, there are students who have been with us in classrooms across the summer, those who are being welcomed back and offers are being made to new students across our regions and the world. Research grants are being sandpapered and polished late into the night and our diaries have crept back up to warp speed.

Perhaps before the ‘busy and urgent’ overtake us, it is good to reflect on how we will realise those still new, New Year’s resolutions to be collaborative and courageous and make our contribution to initiatives which will define the future of our University.

The importance of such a contribution was highlighted last year when staff from all Faculties took up the challenge of being part of the UON STEMM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Maths and Medicine) Strategic Group. This group worked with expert facilitator Dr Megan Clark to develop the UON STEMM 2025 Strategy. The valuable input, robust discussion and future thinking of this group – as well as the leadership provided by our Faculty PVCs – has shaped our view of the future of STEMM at UON.

In this context it was great to read the recent comments of Dr Andrew Fleming from the Faculty of Engineering and Built Environment who was a member of the STEMM Strategy Group. Andrew is one of our ARC Future Fellows who was also awarded the prestigious Batterham Medal by the Academy of Technology and Engineering late last year.

On reflecting on the future of engineering and STEMM, Andrew said “The idea of mixing up biomedicine, physics, chemistry and engineering will be a fantastic change for the student. It will be truly cross-disciplinary. They’ll be interacting with their teachers, but also with Business, Law, Physics and Chemistry – along with industry… In the future, I think we’ll see some huge changes in the way engineering education and research interacts with industry. I believe the University of Newcastle will be a leader in this space.”

The road map for STEMM at UON has been created through the input of Andrew and other thought leaders. This is very timely given the growing importance that governments across the world – although perhaps not all Presidents – have put on the role of convergence of the STEMM disciplines to address pressing social, health, environmental and technology issues.

The development of the UON 2025 STEMM Strategy was also critical in the context that the condition of some of the infrastructure and buildings that serve our STEMM disciplines ‘show their age’. There is no doubt our staff are doing a remarkable job in delivering first rate STEMM education and research in facilities that are not fit for purpose in 2017 and certainly will not be fit for purpose a decade hence.

The consultation that developed the 2025 STEMM Strategy has provided the foundation for the next phase of consultation led by the STEMM Faculty PVCs. During this phase PVCs will work with their colleagues to optimise the colocation of disciplines that is likely to catalyse the interdisciplinary education and research needed to meet the needs of future graduates and deliver global impact. They will grapple with planning a precinct to take account of the emergence of new disciplines formed at the interface of existing ones, and to determine which platform technologies are critical to support future research and innovation. It is clear that we will need facilities that can ‘flex’ as the world of learning, teaching and research morph from what we know now.

And as we work through this complex puzzle, we will address the challenge of optimising how much we can invest in our future versus meeting the needs of the present. In working through this we will resist the temptation to default to a narrative where investment in facilities is seen as a non-investment in staff. This is a false dichotomy – to deliver first rate education and research you need great people and great infrastructure.

In this context the Higher Education Infrastructure Working Group Report released in December 2016 is worthwhile reading.

There are two statements in this detailed report which are good ‘take out’ messages. The first highlights how our competitors and collaborators have responded to the infrastructure challenge.

… universities are husbanding their resources, improving and building their businesses by reinvesting in their teaching and research infrastructure, and generally meeting the demands of a student population requiring high tech and high touch.”

The second statement, however, highlights a current concern:

The continuing ability to generate sound operating surpluses lies at the heart of universities’ capacity to make the infrastructure investments necessary to support high quality teaching, learning and research. Funding shocks that increase risk and erode university operating results and balance sheets will reduce self-financing capacity.”

Now on to a discussion of NeW Space, University House, the Innovation Hub, the ‘new site with a view’ and plans for consultation and initiatives – no, it seems I’ve run out of space and I’m going to squeeze a walk out of the dying light of Australia Day… will have to leave all of that for next time!

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