Australia's Chief Scientist

Book launch – Raising the Stakes: Gambling with the Future of Universities

You can download a copy of the speech here.

  • There are many important themes running through this book.  I don’t have the time to do them all justice, so I hope you will forgive the fact that I am going to talk to just a few.
  • Universities are wonderful organisations.  And I have been privileged to work in them and for them for most of my professional life – at multiple levels from laboratory technician to Vice-Chancellor;
  • It was a privilege because of what universities can do, indeed what they have done and what they can still achieve for our society.
  • And because of the people you meet – not all loveable, but the hard working, professional, dedicated learners – young and old, students and staff – who want to understand things better than they did the day or the month or the year before;
  • On the whole, the Australian community seems to agree and recognise their value: When asked about their overall perceptions of universities, around three quarters of the general public and businesses responded positively (Figure 1). Only around 3-5 per cent of those surveyed responded that they have a negative perception of universities. (UA survey, FEB 2013).
  • But they are complex organisations;
  • They comprise in large part, especially the most research active of them, young people being taught to take nothing for granted; to look to the evidence, to critique, to ask questions, to inquire.  To learn how to learn;
  • And they are taught by staff with many of the same characteristics just more highly refined: take nothing for granted; look for the evidence; critique the evidence; find any flaw; feel good when you do.  Constantly seeking to understand more and to understand it better;
  • The university is an institution with the aim of expanding minds and thinking laterally, and yet their effective management often requires practical, pragmatic thinking.
  • Universities are not easy to lead – yet they need leadership; they are not easy to manage, yet they need management;  they are not easy to change, yet they need to change to be relevant to the times – whichever time;
  • And they are expensive; but “We have much to lose if we allow our universities to slide into mediocrity. The fate of our universities is the fate of our society.
  • So we see them criticised by politicians, sometimes by members of the community, sometimes by members of the business community – because they can’t (and I would argue shouldn’t) snap to change when somebody – whomever – has a new dream, a new vision or even an old one revisited, or the ‘they aren’t what they were in my day’ line;
  • Universities are complex organisms and to change them we need to understand how they  work and what the strengths and weaknesses of our university ‘system’ might be; what we need to do to make them better; and what we can do to ensure that they are more in tune with contemporary societal needs.
  • This book by Peter Coaldrake and Lawrence Stedman should be compulsory reading for those who want to make a contribution to the development of our universities.
  • Why?  Because they will learn a lot.  Both those new to the topic and those who know a bit but would like to know more.
  • The authors do what good academics do: gather the facts, analyse the evidence, look for constructive ways to improve on the evidence and put ideas to the test.
  • This book is learned without pomposity; educational without being patronising; comprehensive without getting bogged down in minutiae.
  • The authors are to be commended for taking nothing for granted.  They assume only an interest in the subject.  And they write for people who want to know more – in an easy and readable style.
  • The book has a number of key and important themes, I can count nine or so that I think are valuable not just to the sector, but to Australia more broadly.  If you want to see them all, read the book.
  • What the authors do in this book is engage in the self-reflection and analysis that showed he is part and parcel of a dynamic university sector.
  • Those that scream for change from the sidelines forget that those within the system see the need for change as well.
  • Much of my work as Chief Scientist is informed by my time in the university sector and I find my thoughts reflected well in these pages. Pete and Lawrence, capture the complexity, the frustration and the joy of the sector we have all cherished/work to protect for so long.
  • Their exploration of opportunities, as well as threats makes this one of the most comprehensive overviews of higher education in Australia.
  • I commend them for it.