A doctrine known as Sayre’s law has often been used as a punchline.
It holds as follows:
“In any dispute the intensity of feeling is inversely proportional to the importance of the issue.”
Henry Kissinger instantly saw the application to university governance.
As he saw it, to paraphrase somewhat, university politics are so fierce, precisely because the stakes are so small.
And while that always tends to get a laugh, in fact the opposite is true.
As Australia’s Chief Scientist – Dr Alan Finkel – has pointed out – the stakes are, in truth, very high.
Because universities play a profound role in the world, and in shaping the next generations.
And we play a profound role in our communities.
I want to share some thoughts about the future-shaping power of ideas and expertise.
And on why we must draw on the deep knowledge in our midst to solve the big challenges before us.
And what challenges we have already faced in 2020 – even though this year is still young.
From the most terrifying bushfire season in living memory here at home.
To the global threat from the new coronavirus – COVID-19.
The big challenges facing humanity are at an alarming juncture.
I choose these words soberly, cautiously and – almost paradoxically – even optimistically.
For an alarm – sounded early enough – gives us time to think, to plan, and to act.
Over this Australian summer, the alarm was certainly clear.
We saw images of our country many never imagined possible.
Communities huddling on beaches – seeking shelter in the waves with kids and pets in their arms – as megafires of unprecedented scale roared towards them.
Young children wearing breathing masks against toxic smoke.
Ferocious weather systems created by the intensity of these fires.
A fire-induced tornado so strong it flipped an eight-tonne firefighting truck.
The deaths of selfless firefighters, who we will always remember.
And the estimated deaths of at least a billion of Australia’s unique native animals.
A terrifying assault on our precious biodiversity and the landscape.
And our water catchments, dams and oceans, at risk from debris.
Something is changing.
That’s not just the lived experience of everyday Australians over this longest of summers.
It’s also the evidence-based warning of our most informed experts.
From our fire chiefs, scientific researchers, and public health officials.
And we should listen.
For their expertise is our best defence against future terrors.
What they tell us is sobering.
Throughout this summer of sorrows, which began – in truth – in the Queensland winter, university communities mustered powerfully to deliver practical aid in their regions.
At just one of our institutions – the University of New England – volunteers and staff provided almost 2000 bed nights and served almost 7000 meals to fire crews.
At the University of Wollongong’s Bateman’s Bay campus, staff opened buildings and set up evacuation shelters for people fleeing burning villages on the coast.
And there were stories like this at universities right across the nation.
They offered leave for firefighters and ADF reservists, mental health support, and clothing and meals for those who had lost everything.
It was a powerful reminder that our universities aren’t just connected to our wider communities.
We ARE our communities.
Beyond these immediate contributions, another powerful contribution was made too.
The gift of expertise.
Expertise to help us comprehend what was happening, avoid further threats and risks, and start the hard and heartbreaking slog to rebuild and recover.
Our university researchers have been some of our most valuable guides and interpreters.
In countless news stories during the bushfires, drought, hailstorms, dangerous smoke and now the coronavirus pandemic, our experts have shared their knowledge with us all.
And they have helped us understand more about what is happening across our country – and its implications for the future.
University fire experts teaching us about the changing scale and behaviour of fires.
Social scientists sharing expertise to support our communities in grief and recovery.
Conservation scientists sharing knowledge to race to save endangered species.
Our water scientists helping to protect our drinking water sources and dams from the risks that follow bushfire – when heavy rains risk flushing ash and pollutants into our drinking water.
And university researchers turned their expertise into practical tools to help Australians in their daily lives.
As toxic smoke choked first Sydney, then Canberra, and many regions across the east and south-east of Australia, we were in new terrain.
An air rating over 200 is considered hazardous.
Yet, at times this summer, Canberra’s readings were well over 4000 – making it officially the most dangerous air quality anywhere in the world for days at a time.
In this stressful period, Australian families downloaded a free app for constant updates.
And where did the Government-recommended AirRater app originate?
It was developed by researchers at the University of Tasmania.
So too, in the face of coronavirus, university expertise has been crucial.
A team at the University of Queensland has been at the forefront of the global race to develop a vaccine in record time.
And epidemiologists from the University of Melbourne’s Peter Doherty Institute and the Australian National University have worked closely with health authorities.
They’ve provided timely evidence and advice to anticipate the likely trajectory of the virus, map its path, and understand more about how it operates.
We are so grateful to each of these university experts who have shared their knowledge to help Australia and the world contain this threat.
Published expert research never sits still.
Researchers are always striving for greater understanding, greater clarity, and greater certainty.
Striving to build on the established evidence.
This is the nature of the scientific method.
Each new study, experiment or paper seeks to test, review or reassess what has come before.
And paper by paper, test by test, trial by trial, research findings build.
Slowly, painstakingly, we reach the point at which the weight of evidence gives us strong confidence that it is conclusive.
The point at which there is overwhelming weight to that evidence.
This process is achieved by rigorous peer review.
Researchers often set out to disprove each other’s work – to seek flaws or holes in the conclusions of rivals, contemporaries and colleagues.
So when the overwhelming majority of expert researchers in a field tells us they have very strong confidence that something is happening, they don’t do so lightly.
In his careful body of work on climate change and economics, Professorial Fellow Ross Garnaut embodies this matter-of-fact style.
Sadly, the predictions in his 2008 report about the risk of dangerous megafires from 2019 have turned out to be unerringly accurate.
And in his latest book, Superpower, he updates the evidence to make a further terrifying prediction.
He notes Australia is one of the most vulnerable developed countries to climate change.
In significant part, this is because temperatures over large land masses will increase by more than the average over both land and sea.
So an increase of 1.75 degrees Celsius for the whole world would mean more than 2 degrees for Australia.
As he writes, this is “twice the increase that helped to bring bushfires in August (in 2019) to New South Wales and Queensland”.
These challenges are among the biggest that humanity has had to face.
And the expertise in our university communities is essential to find clever solutions to our most complex challenges.
And so to the Government and to the Parliament, we say:
We’re here to help.
The expertise of our university research community is a resource for the nation.
We want you to tap into that resource.
The Latin phrase ‘sa-per-eh au-deh’ translates as “dare to know”, “dare to be wise”, or “dare to think for yourself”.
It’s attributed to the Roman poet Horace in the early years BCE, and was popularised by enlightenment philosophers such as Kant.
Whichever translation you prefer, it’s a stirring entreaty for each of us.
And for the educational and research institutions that we lead.
Because universities must “dare to know” what lies before humanity.
We must “dare to be wise”, even if a few perverse populists sometimes wish we wouldn’t.
And we must continue to teach our students and scholars to “dare to think for themselves”.
And not only to think for themselves.
But to do so by assembling and articulating ideas grounded in evidence, respectfully expressed, and argued with clarity, insight, and empathy.
Freedoms of thought and speech are founding ideals of university communities.
Our institutions are places of knowledge, critique and dialogue.
And they are communities of diversity and inclusion, courtesy and respect.
We honour our calling as we impart our founding ethos and these skills to each new generation.
Australia’s universities are places where people debate issues rigorously and vigorously.
And they are places where uncomfortable debates – challenging debates – are held.
That does not mean that we suspend courtesy, compassion or kindness along the way.
Indeed, the art of a great university education is acquiring skills in how to dismantle and refute the ideas of those with whom we disagree.
Expertly. Methodically. Cogently.
And – perhaps even – charmingly.
And always doing so with integrity and respect for others.
Academic freedom is at the heart of what universities do.
As American professors Matthew Finkin and Robert Post observe, it is “the freedom to pursue the scholarly profession according to the standards of that profession”.
All freedoms are, of course, not without limits under the broader law.
In Australia, freedom of speech is not exempt from laws that ban hate speech, incitement to violence, discrimination or defamation.
And within that broader framework, freedom is flourishing.
Last April, a review by former High Court Chief Justice Robert French found that claims of a freedom of speech crisis on our campuses were, quote, “not substantiated”.
But the review also offered a framework as a guide for each university to consider how its existing policies breathed life into those freedoms.
And so, in the ten months since, each university across our nation has carefully and thoughtfully mapped that guide against its own policies.
Each of them has done so as an autonomous institution, with 39 variations on a theme.
And that is fitting, given the importance of university autonomy in strong democratic societies.
Australia’s universities are not only strengthening our democracy and its freedoms.
They also strengthen our society as institutions central to our local communities.
And they strengthen our economy – its labour force, growth, productivity and prosperity.
We also play a crucial role in strengthening Australian businesses.
We do so in Clever Collaborations.
New modelling for Universities Australia prepared by Ernst and Young – which I launch here today – finds close to 17,000 companies in Australia collaborated with a university last year.
That’s a five percent jump in two years.
The direct benefit to those businesses from collaboration with universities was $12.8 billion in 2018-2019.
To put it plainly – that’s a return of almost $4.50 to business for each one dollar invested in collaborative research with a university.
The overall boost that this collaborative activity gives the nation’s economy is now estimated at $26.5 billion.
We’ve seen first-hand the difference it can make to industry.
Just ask mango farmer Ian Groves from near Yeppoon in central Queensland.
Thanks to Professor Kerry Walsh, from CQ University’s Institute for Future Farming Systems, the mango industry has been transformed.
His university team developed infrared technology that can scan each mango while it’s still on the tree.
The technology can count mangoes, assess their ripeness, and project the perfect time for picking to maximise both flavour and shelf life.
And that saves costs – because farmers know when and how many boxes to order, when to hire pickers, and how to get more fruit to market in top condition.
It’s been a game-changer.
As Robert Gray, CEO of Australian Mangoes, says:
“It’s a great way of bringing new technologies into your industry in a cost-effective way.”
We also see the power of economic stimulus in the footprint of our universities.
Right across the country, there are now many university-industry precincts.
These are places that bring together universities, research institutes, industry partners, and start-ups.
As Bruce Katz and Julie Wagner of the Brookings Institution put it:
Innovation districts are “the ultimate mash up of entrepreneurs and educational institutions …—all connected by transit, powered by clean energy, wired for digital technology, and fuelled by caffeine.”
Caffeine, of course, is now widely understood as a super fuel – but, unfortunately, with a productivity curve a little like alcohol:
That is a steady incline up to a natural peak, followed by a sudden sharp plunge in capacity to focus.
But I digress.
The point is that proximity sparks possibility.
Business innovation is easier when you work next door to – and team up with – clever people working at the cutting edge of research.
University precincts breathe life into local and regional economies.
They’re a shot in the arm for industry.
I’ve seen this first-hand both here and abroad.
In the United States, when you visit MIT and Boston, it’s hard to tell where one ends and the other begins.
The same is true for Australian precincts.
In Sydney’s inner-west, the South Eveleigh innovation precinct houses start-up tech firms and spin-offs from uni research.
Further west, you’ll find the Agripark in Richmond and the Westmead health precinct.
Further west again, you’ll find Lot 14 in Adelaide, now home to the Australian Space Agency, and seriously further west, the Murdoch Health and Knowledge Precinct.
Down south, there are increasingly dense footprints of industry partners around the Universities of Melbourne and Monash.
And up north, in Queensland, you’ll find the Ecosciences Precinct and the Translational Research Institute.
And the list goes on.
I reiterate our offer to Australian businesses and industry.
If you have a business challenge you haven’t been able to crack, ask us to help.
The nation’s universities stand ready, willing and able to work with you.
And we have deep expertise to bring to your challenges.
We’re reaching out.
We want business to reach in.
We are making progress, but we can do more together.
One of the attributes that makes Australia’s university sector so competitive globally is our outward-looking nature.
It has ever been so.
From their earliest days, our nation’s universities looked around the world to build links and alliances with counterparts in other countries.
In the late 1800s and early 1900s, those ties were in Britain and across the British Empire – later to become the Commonwealth.
Over the last century, we’ve added a strong focus in the Asia Pacific.
These global ties imbue our universities with an international outlook.
And this gives us a strong competitive edge.
When we bring Australia’s best researchers together with others at the leading edge of that same field in Japan or China or Singapore or Germany, the UK or the US, we speed advances.
And this is the way that the very best research is increasingly done – in cross-country, cross-cultural, and cross-disciplinary teams.
Rather than retreating into isolation, our researchers and research institutions know global collaboration is essential.
We must always remain open to the world – and engage deeply in the world.
Such engagements, though, are not without risk.
But like all risks, we can choose to manage them proactively, astutely, and well.
Last year, Australia’s universities took a fresh look at how we manage the risks in global collaborations.
And particularly how we manage the risks of foreign interference in a changing world.
Australia has led the world in our approach to prevent foreign interference.
In May, our universities started a conversation with national security agencies about how we might work even more closely together.
By August, we took the opportunity of a meeting with Education Minister Dan Tehan and agencies to continue those conversations.
And we agreed to work together in an equal partnership with a taskforce to draft principles-based guidelines as a resource for universities.
Those guidelines were launched in October by Minister Tehan, RMIT Vice-Chancellor Martin Bean on behalf of the university sector, and Australia’s National Counter Foreign Interference Coordinator, Chris Teal.
This year, we continue that partnership to build a body of good practice.
This will gather further examples of how universities are managing and getting ahead of emerging risks – and how we remain on the front foot.
This includes our work on cyber-security, conducting due diligence on research partners, and reviewing long-term partnerships periodically.
And it includes building awareness of staff and students.
Australia’s universities will always approach this as a partnership with agencies.
Because they can see things that we can’t, and we can see things that they can’t.
So this partnership helps us all to manage risks carefully and diligently.
Our globalism, our internationalism, our openness – they have benefits beyond research.
In fact, one of the great Australian success stories of the past six decades has been the story of international education.
Australia’s universities were founded to educate our own young citizens.
That will always be our purpose.
But from the very first days of the Commonwealth conversations that would lead to the original Colombo Plan, we felt a broader calling too.
From the 1950s, our universities saw a duty to educate talented young scholars from our region and around the world alongside our own.
In the six decades since we started, with strong Government backing throughout, Australia has grown into one of the world’s most compelling choices for young global scholars who could choose to study anywhere.
And they do us the honour of choosing to study in Australia.
Parents and families across our region invest their children’s future with us.
And we cherish that responsibility to our students and their families.
I want to say once more that our thoughts are constantly with our students who have not yet been able to make it to Australia this year.
Our students and staff who remain in China are deeply stressed.
And they are so keen to start or continue their studies.
We want you to know our hearts are with you at this very challenging time.
And we will do all we can to ensure your studies stay on track.
The vast majority of Australians understand the cultural and societal value of international education.
They also see the economic contribution.
Our students bring nearly $40 billion a year into the Australian economy.
And this supports Australian jobs, wages, local shops, tourism operators and small businesses.
But, more importantly, our global students make a huge cultural contribution to our lively, worldly, cosmopolitan communities.
And the experience of educating the current and future leaders of our region together has yielded vast benefits.
Not only for our students, but for Australia’s influence in the world.
I am always struck by this extraordinary impact when I have the privilege of meeting Dr George Chan.
He’s the Pro Chancellor of Curtin University’s Malaysia campus.
He was the driving force for this campus, which brings strong benefits to the economy and life of one of our important ASEAN neighbours.
George was a Colombo Plan Scholar.
He graduated from the University of Sydney in 1963 with degrees in medicine and surgery.
He went on to be Deputy Chief Minister of Sarawak, among other roles.
And he has been an extraordinary friend of both Curtin University and Australia over many decades.
I remember being deeply moved when George used the words of our university’s namesake – the former Australian Prime Minister John Curtin – to illustrate the importance of what we have, in partnership, achieved in Malaysia.
All of us who spend time abroad regularly meet alumni who have fond memories of their time studying in Australia.
We witness first-hand how their deep affection and knowledge of our country returns dividends over a lifetime.
And the value of that to Australia?
You can’t put a price tag on friendship, understanding and goodwill.
They lay the foundations for influence and soft power.
And these are the cornerstone of our diplomatic efforts.
The recent announcement that Monash will establish the first foreign university campus in Indonesia powerfully illustrates this point.
It was terrific to have that announcement coincide with the ratification of the Indonesia-Australia Comprehensive Economic Partnership Agreement.
And we hope to see more such partnerships and ventures as this bilateral relationship continues to flourish.
Universities are some of the most adaptive, resilient, self-renewing institutions in human history.
Our constant is change.
Every so often, it’s predicted that universities may soon be under threat.
Existential threat, no less.
Yet what the doomsayers overlook is the restless instinct of universities for transformation and reinvention.
These important institutions of society are not frozen in time.
They are dynamic and ever evolving.
We’ve stood the test of time precisely because we’re adaptive.
And we will continue to be so.
As former US Ambassador to Australia, Jeffrey Bleich so eloquently puts it, universities help us to: “see the future and prepare future generations to succeed in it”.
In a speech last year, Professor Alison Wolf, of Kings College London, noted that universities are enormously long-lived and successful compared to almost all other institutions in society.
And far longer lived than, say, a random sample of companies from the Fortune 500.
Wolf concludes that as long as R&D keeps generating new ideas and helping growth, the modern university sector will continue to be supported by the state.
And she notes that more and more people rationally want to go to university – and so it’s hard for Governments to pull the plug on such access for voting citizens.
Which is why we are so committed to working collaboratively with Government to address the ‘shared challenges’ on the horizon.
To ensure that as our population grows, our young people have the same access to university education as those who came before them.
To close the education gaps that still exist in our regional communities; in our outer suburbs; and in our Indigenous communities.
To deliver the skilled graduate labour force that is so essential if our economy is to continue to grow and to diversify.
And to play our role to help shape the future through our education; our research; and our innovation.
In the long history of universities around the world, this year marks the 100th year of formal ties between Australian universities.
2020 is the centenary of the combined history of Universities Australia and its predecessor.
That’s a substantial milestone, especially for a national not-for-profit advocacy body.
In 1920, our six universities educated just under 8,000 students.
By 2020, our 39 universities have around one million Australian students and almost half a million international students.
And while we acknowledge the past as we mark the milestone, our centenary also offers the opportunity to look to the future.
As we set out at the turn of that century for Australian universities, I know our best days still lie ahead.
And that confidence is kindled every time we look at the constellation of brilliant student talent, and our inspiring young researchers.
If you have any doubt about why universities matter, and the great force for good they are in the world, they affirm it.
Our next generations embody the spirit of our mission to educate, to forge new frontiers of knowledge, to share evidence and expertise, and to be the lifeblood of our local communities.
And they embody our founding ethos – that we must dare to know, dare to think for ourselves, and dare to be wise.
For, to return to Horace, courage and conviction are a powerful combination.
His words are a nod to a parable that it’s foolish to wait for a river to stop flowing before trying to cross it; the wise forgo comfort and cross anyway.
His entreaty reminds us all to have courage to use our own reason.
And to have courage to face the future, and all that it presents.
So as we confront the big challenges ahead, let’s dare – as a community, as a nation, and as humanity – to be guided by the evidence.
Let’s dare to have the courage of our convictions.
And let’s – always – dare to be wise.
This article is based on a speech Professor Deborah Terry AO gave to the National Press Club on 26 February 2020.