In May 2019, Professor Deborah Terry became Chair of Universities Australia after serving as Deputy Chair and a Board Director.
HIGHER ED.ITION wanted to give readers a deeper insight into her background, life experiences and policy priorities for UA in the two years ahead. Here’s what we asked.
Q: What do you love about your role as a Vice-Chancellor?
A: Universities are places of inspiration. There is such diversity within and across our disciplines, our teaching, our research, and across the broad range of our external partnerships, community relationships and links. And so much of what occurs in universities each day is a source of awe and admiration.
To be in a position whereyou are exposed to incredible diversity, talent and commitment every day is both a privilege and a delight.
However long you’ve been at an institution, you are always discovering something new – that amazing new study that one of our researchers is undertaking; or a creative new student initiative; or an alumnus who has gone onto to achieve great things or to make a profound difference in the world.
These are the experiences that reinforce for me the importance of our sector: for future generations; for our economic and global competitiveness; and fundamentally for our social cohesion.
So, you have long days, and days where you are faced with challenges. But fundamentally, for me, being a Vice-Chancellor is an extraordinary privilege.
Q: What are your key priorities for UA’s advocacy during your time as Chair?
A: There is a big agenda of work ahead. The seamless transition in the leadership of UA sets us up well for this next chapter.
There are a significant number of federal reviews underway, and UA is engaged actively in each of them. They range on topics from regional and rural educational opportunity to performance-based funding, and reviews of the qualifications framework and provider categories. So there are big policy questions being considered by policymakers and Governments. This makes it all the more important for UA and the Board to work collaboratively with Government to ensure the nation’s universities can fulfil our mission for the country.
As a sector, and indeed as a nation, we face considerable challenges as we prepare graduates to take their place in, and indeed help to shape, a rapidly changing labour market. We also know that we have a population bulge in school leavers coming through as the so-called ‘Costello babies’ leave school. It is critical that Australia is able to provide university pathways for these students. We also need to continue to address the education gaps that are still experienced by too many parts of our communities.
Hence having a good sense of the broad policy framework in which we’re operating enables us to plan for the future and deliver the world-class education and research on which Australia’s future success relies.
Relatedly, we need to continue to work to ensure that there’s a good and shared public understanding of the importance of universities — the impact of our research and teaching. For students, we are destinations for opportunity and aspiration. At the same time, we play a critical role in the success and the vibrancy of our national innovation system. It’s these characteristics that have contributed to Australia’s success and stability. We will continue to do so as we play our role in helping to drive the knowledge economy of the future – both through our graduates; our research; and our collaborations with industry.
And we will continue our policy and leadership engagement on student safety and wellbeing, Indigenous advancement, the progress of women into senior ranks, and the growing diversity throughout the leadership of our institutions.
The sector is at its strongest when we work together; when there is a shared view of the contributions that we make; and a shared view of our future as a sector. So, I am keen to continue in the footsteps of people who have preceded me in order to ensure that UA is effective in representing the sector as a whole – in all its vibrancy and diversity.
Q: Are there other challenges or opportunities on the immediate horizon in higher ed?
A: In addition to serving our own nation’s students and research needs, we need to continue to nurture the great Australian success story that is international education.
International education is one of Australia’s most important export industries. But more than this, our success in international education has deepened the international character and outlook of our universities for the better. It makes us more globally engaged, outward-looking and makes us a beacon for brilliant global talent.
This is reflected in the impact we have in the region, through the skills and capabilities of our international alumni; through soft diplomacy; and through the partnerships that ensue once international students return home. The impact is also important for Australian students who benefit from the focus that’s now, very appropriately, been put on diverse learning experiences and opportunities for international mobility.
We compete increasingly in a competitive global world, so our role enabling cultural exchange, regional collaboration and global research ties is pivotal to Australia’s engagement with the world.
Q: Switching to the personal now, can you tell us a bit about your background and upbringing, including your early education?
A: I grew up in a defence family so I moved around quite a lot as a child. I’m originally from Western Australia but undertook my early years of school in the UK prior to spending my formative years as a boarder at Girls Grammar in Canberra.
In some ways, boarding school makes you grow up quite quickly – the experience means that you are more self-reliant and adaptable than you might have otherwise been. In other ways, I felt that I was a little naïve when I left school because it was quite a closed environment. My experience certainly pre-dated emails so the highlight for me was weekly letters from my parents. I was relatively fortunate because my father was able to ring quite often from London – this was relatively unusual back then although it’s hard to imagine now!
Looking back, I feel privileged to have grown up in a family where education was highly valued and encouraged. I know that this is still not the case for everyone. Which is why the emphasis that our sector places on building aspiration and supporting students from disadvantaged backgrounds is so critically important, not only for individuals and their families, but for whole communities.
Q: What about your time at university as a student, what did you value about that experience? Why did you choose to study psychology?
A: I had a wonderful time as a student at ANU. I was always fascinated with human behaviour—the diversity of human behaviour and the factors that explain variation in psychological responses and psychological well-being.
I realised quite early on in my undergraduate studies that my focus would be on research rather than on pursuing a career as a professional psychologist. Right from my honours year, I worked in the field of social psychology. How do our social environments impact on our behaviour? What are the factors that account for group behaviour and intergroup dynamics? What do the insights that come from this type of basic research tell us about a range of applied issues, including stereotyping and prejudice; the impact of social norms and social influence; and organisational dynamics, for instance, when employees are responding to the challenges of an organisational merger.
Q: Have those insights from psychology served you well in leadership and management roles throughout your career? How so?
A: I often get asked that question. I think psychology prepares you well for leadership positions in universities because your training in the breadth of the discipline means that you are comfortable across the broad social sciences right through to the life sciences and neuroscience.
As a consequence, you can engage with colleagues across a wide range of disciplines. Psychology is also both a discipline and a profession, so you also have a good understanding of the challenges faced in meeting accreditation requirements across the broad range of professional teaching areas, including health sciences, engineering, and law.
In terms of understanding human behaviour, I like to think that my knowledge of psychology helps with listening, communicating, making sure messages are clear. But this probably only gets me so far – I am always conscious of ways that I can improve in these critically important areas!
Q: You’ve been working at universities in one way or another for over 20 years, what have you seen change at universities over the course of that career? What do you think has remained constant?
A: I’ve had the privilege of having had a wonderful career in the university sector.
After finishing my PhD, I spent around a decade as a researcher and a lecturer. I found that although I had never been formally trained in teaching, I loved been in the classroom. I also loved doing research, and I found that, early on as postdoc at the University of Queensland, I really enjoyed the opportunity to work with honours and PhD students and, as a consequence, having some impact on the next generation of researchers and academics in my field.
I was involved in a large research group, supervised a lot of students, and I taught both in my own area and more broadly on research methodology and statistics. In many ways, these are still the fundamental roles of academics right across the sector. But, compared to when I was an early career researcher, things are now tougher – attracting research funding; building a competitive research track record, especially if you have any career breaks; and responding to heightened standards for quality of research outputs and research impact.
Similarly, with teaching, the expectations that students now, appropriately, have in terms of clarity of information, availability of resources including lecture recordings, and the capacity to access material through multiple channels of delivery mean it’s a much more challenging environment than in the past.
But the core elements of what attracted me to academic life are still there, which makes me very conscious of the fact that, as leaders, we need to ensure that our universities continue to provide the environments where our researchers and lecturers can thrive.
Q: Are you someone, by nature, who really loves change – or someone who embraces change pragmatically?
A: I am driven very much by making progress; solving problems; and positioning for the future. So, rather than liking change for change’s sake, I really thrive on setting goals and, together with colleagues, making progress towards those goals. And, if there are problems or road blocks along the way, then my approach is to do what I can to address them as soon as possible.
Q: And do you think that problem solving, working together towards a goal formed as part of your training as a researcher? Do you still feel like you apply it in your current role?
A: One of the things about research is that you’re always trying to solve problems. This is particularly the case for psychological research. Because of the nature of psychology, you need to be able to design studies that address the specific research questions, at the same time as meeting appropriate ethical standards for research and avoiding demand characteristics – that is, where research subjects respond to what they think the research is designed to detect rather than to the variables under consideration.
Research is collaborative. When I was active in research, we were always looking for new understandings and new advances by bringing together the right skills and playing to our strengths. I do think they are very much the same skills and approaches that we all use when you’re trying to position a university for success into the future.
Q: What’s something very few people know about you that is an insight into who you are?
A: I’ve always been an avid reader. And I have the capacity to engross myself in almost anything. Some of it is not what you would call high literature!
As a reflection of my slightly obsessive characteristics: every now and then I decide I’m going to do a full retrospective on a particular author.
When I was younger, I’d sit down and read Jane Austen’s novels from the first to the last. But as I’ve gotten older, my focus is more often now on the less-heady literature that characterises many a crime novel.
I do really like long series and if I discover a new one, I’m in heaven because I can keep downloading them and I don’t have to worry about what I’m going to read next!