February update

Welcome back to the start of the new academic year.

The year began well with an outstanding Australia Day speech delivered by Michelle Simmons, UNSW Scientia Professor of Quantum Physics in our Faculty of Science at UNSW and Director of our ARC Centre of Excellence for Quantum Computation & Communication Technology. Michelle talked about her reasons for migrating from the UK to Australia to work at UNSW and her world leading research. She said there was no better place to do research than right here in Australia: a culture of academic freedom, openness to ideas, and an amazing willingness to pursue goals that are ambitious. Michelle and her outstanding colleagues at UNSW will continue their cutting-edge research in 2017, with the aim of building the world’s first quantum computer.

The prospect of a quantum computer is just one example of the importance of the work conducted in universities across the world. In a world facing great uncertainty, growing inequality and major political shifts, the role of universities is more important than ever. Our ethos at UNSW, reflected in Strategy 2025, is to use our expertise and resources to improve lives by addressing the challenges facing our community and the global community – we strive to be an exemplar of the university as a ‘Servant of Society’ in all that we do. We are well set to deliver our objectives this year through the Strategy 2025 implementation plans developed during 2016 by each of our Faculties and Divisions. The plans provide an exciting roadmap for delivering excellence in research, outstanding education, thought leadership, a drive for knowledge transfer, our commitment to social justice, equality, diversity and global impact.

On the national scene, I hope we will at last see progress this year on the issue of higher education funding, which reached an impasse after the proposal for fee deregulation in 2014. Many UNSW staff will be involved in discussions on this issue and I will be contributing in my new role (since January 1st) as Deputy Chair of the Group of Eight, working with the new Go8 Chair Peter Hoj (VC at UQ) and via Universities Australia. The issues are complex, but Australia needs to quickly find an equitable way of funding teaching and learning, whilst ensuring that research is funded to a level that will enable us to compete effectively in the fastest growing region in the world.

In the global context, I am sure that like me you will have been following the impact of the inauguration of a new US President. The possible implications for the economy, for conflict and for tolerance are troubling and some actions such as the immigration edict – see below – have had an immediate impact on our staff and students. Our aspiration is to be “Australia’s Global University” and we will continue to pursue that objective through our extensive international education, through the network of research collaborations that you lead across all continents and through our knowledge transfer partnerships.


The sudden imposition of US immigration bans on people from seven predominantly Muslim countries has had an immediate and widespread impact on many university staff and students worldwide. Last week I issued a media release outlining my deep concerns about the move, which is a barrier to the uninhibited exchange of ideas and talent that are the very hallmarks of academic freedom. Universities have a key role to play in protecting freedom of expression, the exchange of ideas, and in promoting global tolerance and understanding. The US is not of course the first country to impose these types of restrictions, but its role in promoting international collaboration in higher education over the last 50+ years makes these developments particularly alarming. The proposed bans will have an impact on academic collaboration, such as teaching and research programs with our PLuS Alliance partners, Arizona State University and King’s College London, and with many other institutions, and on the travel plans of some students and staff starting at or returning to UNSW in 2017, or attending conferences in the United States. At UNSW, we pride ourselves on welcoming students and staff from all nations, and we will offer our full support to any affected by the restrictions. Those affected can also check the Australian Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT) Smartraveller website to get the latest information on the travel bans. One consequence that we have already seen, following developments in the USA and Brexit, is an increase in interest from academics currently based in the USA and UK in joining UNSW. Welcome as that is in the context of our recruitment plans, it is small compensation for the threats to social tolerance, academic freedom and collaboration that are driving it.


In late January, we announced our intention to form a strategic collaboration with The George Institute for Global Health, to bolster the efforts of both organisations to deliver high-impact medical research and transform lives around the world. This is an important development for medicine at UNSW and opens up opportunities for many other faculties. The George has hubs in China, India and the UK, projects in around 50 countries and over 600 staff with a focus on improving global health, especially for people at socio-economic disadvantage or living in resource poor settings. Outside Australia it is linked with a number of leading academic institutions including the University of Oxford and Peking University Health Science Center. The areas of research that our collaboration will focus on include non-communicable diseases and injuries, clinical trials, epidemiology, biostatistics; health systems, and ‘big healthcare data’. The George team of academics also complement our activities at UNSW with their interest in the health of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities, research on health-focused social enterprises and in the establishment of a global health policy think tank. Our Dean of Medicine Professor Rodney Phillips played a key role in developing this new collaboration. He noted that the outstanding activity of The George Institute in critical areas of clinical and public health research fits perfectly with our existing areas of world-class expertise in medicine and health at UNSW.


Last week UNSW was named one of the world’s most international universities, rated 14th in the Times Higher Education (THE) ranking. As always we take a “sophisticated” approach to league tables, celebrating those that like this one rightly place us high in the rankings and finding fault with all others! In this instance the THE are clearly doing their job well, having ranked us 54th in the world last year. The 2017 THE International Universities Rankings assess institutions on their outward-looking characteristics, drawn largely from the “international outlook” pillar of the THE World University Rankings which covers international staff, students and co-authors, but also includes a measure of universities’ international reputations, taken from THE’s annual Academic Reputation Survey. UNSW’s ranking puts us in the Top 20 with other globally-focused universities such as ETH Zurich – Swiss Federal Institute of Technology Zurich, the University of Hong Kong, King’s College London, the Universities of Oxford and Cambridge, and the London School of Economics. That’s impressive company. And at 14th, we ranked second in Australia behind the ANU. The fact that Australia has five universities in the Top 25 most international reflects the global outlook of higher education in Australia, which is so critical for the country’s well-being and future prosperity.


In the prestigious FT Ranking, our AGSM (Australian Graduate School of Management) has been ranked 54th in the world (up 12 places from 2016, and 21 since 2015) of the top 100 MBA programs worldwide, and the most consistent performer of any Australian business school. AGSM is one of only three Australian business schools included in the FT rankings. This follows the QS MBA performance review which listed AGSM among its “global elite”, placing it among the world’s top 45 global business schools. On the QS Asia-Pacific list for employability, six Australian institutions were in the top 20 with UNSW leading them in 2nd place, behind INSEAD’s Singapore campus, and we were rated 4th for research. Approaching its 40th anniversary, AGSM is cementing its place amongst the world’s top business schools, and, significantly, it is improving the global employability and mobility of its graduates. In that context, congratulations to economist Tim Harcourt, of the UNSW Business School, who has been named one of The Conversation’s ‘Top Thinkers of 2016’, for his expertise in bringing the complex issues of trade, politics and economics into public debate. Tim, the J.W. Nevile Fellow in Economics at the Business School and previously Chief Economist of the Australian Trade Commission, is a regular in our media summaries, appearing widely on TV, radio and in print as a highly experienced commentator.


UNSW Sydney’s already-enviable reputation in early years care and education has been boosted with outstanding results in the assessment ratings for one of our four services, Tigger’s Honeypot. The assessment took place over a three-day period last November by ACECQA (Australian Children’s Education and Care Quality Authority) and has just been released: Tigger’s Honeypot exceeded the National Quality Standard (NQS) in each of the seven Quality Areas! Tigger’s Honeypot was assessed as ‘exceeding’ 17 out of the 18 quality standards - ‘Exceeding’ is the highest rating awarded and as of November 2016 only 25% of all early childhood education and care services assessed in NSW have received this rating. To date, three of the four Early Years centres at UNSW Sydney have been assessed as ‘exceeding’ the NQS. Congratulations to all the staff at the centre, to the Early Years Management team and the supportive Tigger’s Honeypot Community Committee.


There were a number of memorable events before the holiday break. I attended a wonderful celebration marking the 10th anniversary of our ASPIRE program. A strong contingent gathered at the Michael Crouch Centre to celebrate the UNSW award-winning school outreach program led with great skill and energy by Ann Jardine. A decade of effort has seen success in communities and schools where the number of students who go on to university is low. ASPIRE has 54 partner schools spread across metro Sydney and regional New South Wales, with students from indigenous, refugee and migrant communities, from families where no one has ever been to university, and students from disadvantaged backgrounds. ASPIRE has helped hundreds of disadvantaged teenagers find their way into university courses, both at UNSW and other Australian universities.

At the Australian Mental Health Awards event in December, Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull was on hand to present awards - Kim Ryan was named inaugural winner of UNSW's Australian Mental Health Prize for her tireless advocacy on behalf of mental health nurses. Kim was the inaugural chair of the Mental Health Professional Association (MHPA), which brings together representatives from the ACMHN, the Royal Australian College of General Practitioners, the Australia Psychology Society, and the Royal Australian and New Zealand College of Psychiatrists.

In December, we were visited by a delegation from Gulu University in Uganda, with which we are developing strong bonds of cooperation and friendship as part of our Global Development Initiative. Earlier, in August, I led a UNSW delegation to Gulu to sign an MoU launching a long-term collaboration that will see development programs for Gulu University academic staff, and visiting research fellowships (in both directions) in areas such as mental health, justice, renewable energy and infectious diseases. Gulu is a young university bringing hope and opportunity to people in one of the worlds most disadvantaged areas. The return visit to UNSW by Gulu University’s Vice-Chancellor Jack Pen-Mogi and his team saw further talks on collaborations including staff training in library services, research infrastructure and communications, and exchange PhD scholarships, all of which will help cement our bonds with Gulu and extend the already significant global impact of UNSW in public health care, climate science, energy and water, AIDS/HIV, post conflict trauma, migration and other fields.


Last week I spoke alongside Mary O’Kane, NSW Chief Scientist and Michael Spence, VC at the University of Sydney, at the launch of the NSW Smart Sensing Network (NSSN), involving an important collaboration between the two universities and the NSW Government, which will use futuristic sensing technologies to tackle major challenges in agriculture, health, security, the environment and industry. The network is backed by the NSW Government and aims to make Sydney one of the global hubs of sensing research and the new ‘smart’ technologies, ranging from mobile phone-enabled air and water sensors to skin patches for monitoring sun exposure, and techniques for audio recognition of koala mating calls. On the UNSW side, our projects and technologies on display at the launch included the biomedical research led by Professor Justin Gooding and Dr Alex Donald in the School of Chemistry. Justin’s work aims to detect clinically important biomarkers in blood using UV-sensitive skin patches and sensors. Alex’s work is aimed at developing a palm portable device to monitor toxic pollutants in groundwater, that could also be used to quickly sense other chemicals such as explosives, narcotics and chemical weapons, and possibly to diagnose and monitor diseases by measuring molecules on a person’s breath. There was a real expectation at the event that developments, like smart sensing technologies, really can help turn cities like Sydney not only into smart cities, but far better places to live for everyone.


UNSW unveiled an unprecedented $100 million innovation partnership last year with China’s Torch program that will deliver a major boost in research and development funding for Australian and Chinese research through a new Torch science and technology precinct in Sydney. That was definitely a highlight of 2016, but the work to make it a reality has only just begun. This week I am leading a UNSW delegation to China to explore further avenues for cooperation and research funding. Last night we hosted leaders of Sydney’s Chinese community at UNSW celebrations in the Art Gallery of New South Wales, to mark ‘The Year of the Rooster’. The event is now an annual part of the UNSW calendar and helps symbolise our strong links with supporters in the Chinese community. Hopefully on this front there will be good news for the March newsletter.


The PLuS Alliance - our three-way collaboration with Arizona State University and King’s College London commenced in February last year - is rapidly gathering strength. In addition to appointing over 100 PLuS Alliance Fellows, awarding 11 research seed grants and running three research symposia in its first year, the PLuS Alliance has been steadily developing its collaborative education programs, and already has students undertaking taking virtual exchanges in Public Health and Engineering, with additional programs to be launched this year. The Alliance’s first collaborative, undergraduate degree in International Public Health is also being developed; more news on that later in the year. Following the student leaders’ meeting in November, the PLuS Alliance Student Council was formed to collaborate on projects that will drive the student experience across the three partners. This includes joint campaigns on sustainability, student wellbeing, social justice, sports, media and cultural diversity. Another exciting development is the launch of the PLuS Alliance Prize – there will be two prizes, to be awarded annually for research innovation and education innovation. The Prize will recognise outstanding contributions by individuals or groups worldwide in addressing the greatest global challenges facing society. The awards are valued at USD25,000 each, which, along with travel allowances, is packaged with speaking opportunities at each of the three PLuS Alliance universities during the 12 months following the award. Nominations for the Prize may be submitted via staff or students holding a current ASU, KCL or UNSW email address through an online portal. Further details will be announced on the PLuS Alliance website and in other communications soon. The inaugural award will be presented at the Times Higher Education’s World Academic Summit in London in September this year.


An overhaul of the admission process has allowed a wider range of students to have the opportunity to study Law at UNSW this year. Dean of Law Professor George Williams reports that about 300 students have received an offer to the undergraduate dual Law degree program at UNSW in 2017 – roughly the same number as last year – based not only on their ATAR but also their result in the new Law Admission Test (LAT). The LAT, five years in the planning, is an Australian first for entry to undergraduate Law and was designed to provide a more rounded view of applicants’ skills and their suitability to study Law at UNSW and enter the profession. The two hour written test was developed by the Australian Council for Educational Research (ACER), in conjunction with UNSW Law and was held before last year’s HSC exams, testing a broader range of skills like critical thinking, logical reasoning and analysis. The LAT results were used in conjunction with students’ academic results, similar to the way that entry to UNSW Medicine combines academic results, an admission test and an interview. The Law Faculty sees the LAT as a way to improve the system of entry to UNSW’s highly competitive Law program, and early indications are that it achieved this aim. Professor Williams says the LAT was introduced to provide a genuine opportunity for highly qualified applicants from diverse backgrounds, who might not previously have met the selection rank cut-offs, to have the chance to prove their suitability for UNSW’s Law programs. He is confident that the diversity of students has been increased, whilst maintaining quality.


Killer robots, disaster recovery, youth depression, climate change and rising inequality were among the pressing global issues tackled at Unsomnia, the Grand Challenges launch event in early December. Hosted by comedian Craig Reucassel from The Chaser’s War on Everything, 13 UNSW academics were asked ‘What keeps you up at night’ and invited on stage to offer their solutions to some of the 21stCentury’s most complex issues. In my own presentation, I said that the great universities of the 21st century will be those that look outward working for the benefit of society locally and globally, to solve our current problems, avoiding “ivory towers” that separated universities from communities - and actively engaging with the public as champions of independent thinking, of creativity, of innovation and the “contest of ideas”. It was a wonderful event, full of engaging speakers like Helen Christensen, Scientia Professor of Mental Health, who told the packed audience in Leighton Hall that online prevention programs could stop 60,000 young Australians from developing depression and anxiety every year. Research by her team at the UNSW-based Black Dog Institute has shown that low-cost, evidence-based mental health interventions can be delivered on smartphones to reach vulnerable adolescents. The sad reality is that one in six young Australians will develop a mental illness, and Professor Christensen believes these online programs can, and should, be made available at every school.

Artificial intelligence expert, Professor Toby Walsh, from the School of Computer Science and Engineering, told the audience “science fiction is fast becoming science fact”, and that intelligent machines would help make us all healthier, wealthier and happier. But with one very significant caveat: humans must never hand life and death decisions to autonomous machines. Killer robots and other autonomous lethal weapons simply cannot be built to fight ethically, so they must not be built at all.

Scientia Professor Matt England, the academic lead for the Grand Challenges on Climate Change, told us our failure to take decisive action on global warming was like “leaving our kids with a huge credit card debt”. The internationally acclaimed expert on the physics of the oceans said more than 93% of the heat from global warming was being absorbed by oceans, but not be without significant future costs – from rising sea levels to devastating ocean acidification.

There were many other great speakers and you can watch them all on video here, please do take a look.

This year Grand Challenges take on a new issue, Inequality, with academic leads Professor Rosalind Dixon (Law) and Professor Richard Holden (Economics). Events this year begin in O Week with Challenging Inequality: The Universe’s Biggest Book Club Discussion on Friday 24th February on Thomas Piketty’s Capital in the Twenty-First Century, with guest panellists Peter Van Olsen (Sky News) and Hon Dr Andrew Leigh, Member for Fenner, discussing whether Piketty ‘got it right’. (This will be followed by an all staff and student consultation for the Grand Challenge on Inequality). On 15th March, the Grand Challenge on Refugees & Migrants presents Europe, Refugees and Our Obsession with Borders, a public lecture by Dr François Gemenne as part of the EXIT exhibition at Art & Design. Dr Gemenne is a world authority on climate change and disaster-related migration. I urge you to attend and contribute to UNSW’s thought leadership on the big issues.


The annual UNSW Gandhi Memorial Oration is a highlight of the UNSW calendar, always engaging and often provocative, and this year’s oration in late January did not disappoint. Social researcher Dr Hugh Mackay explored the Australian landscape – not the bush, the rivers or mountains – but the human landscape that surrounds and often bewilders us. Speaking on “The state of the nation starts in your street”, he outlined how many Australians were in the grip of anxiety and depression, feeling powerless in the face of events here and overseas. True to Gandhi’s principles, Hugh Mackay argued convincingly that we need to rely more on ourselves as individuals engaging with our local communities. He warned that Australians were showing signs of “a disturbing retreat from the values we were once famous for” and that happiness could not exist without all the other emotions we are capable of feeling. “Every band of the emotional spectrum is as valid as every other band because they all teach us what it is to be human.” Sponsored by Tata Consultancy Services, the annual Gandhi Oration commemorates India’s Martyrs’ Day, the anniversary of Mahatma Gandhi’s assassination on 30 January 1948, and is delivered by a person whose life work exemplifies Gandhian ideals. Hugh Mackay filled the role perfectly, and deservedly won lengthy applause from the audience.


We have a large number of talented authors on our UNSW campuses and many deservedly receive major awards. The latest is Madeline Gleeson, author of Offshore: Behind the Wire on Manus and Nauru, published by NewSouth and last week declared winner of the Victorian Premier’s Non-Fiction Award in Melbourne. A senior research associate at the UNSW Andrew & Renata Kaldor Centre for International Refugee Law, Madeline says she wrote Offshore to get beyond the rumours, allegations, secrecy and political spin to give a factual account of how refugees on Nauru and Manus Island have coped since the Australian government reinstated offshore processing in 2012. I was pleased to launch Madeline’s book at UNSW in 2016, and I am even more pleased that she has won this award for a book that could not be more timely or more important. Confronted with the greatest number of displaced people since World War II, we need to find lasting solutions to the challenge of forced migration. Understanding which policies work and why others fail is more crucial than ever. This is a book for our troubled times, and begs the question, ‘What sort of world do we want to live in?’.


Congratulations to all 58 staff and alumni of UNSW recognised in this year’s Australia Day honours for their services to Australian society. The diversity of their achievements illustrates the impact that our university has on the wider community. 21 UNSW staff and alumni received the higher orders of AO (Officer of the Order of Australia) and AM (Member of the Order of Australia):

Mr Robert Bowen AO, for distinguished service to community health in Queensland, particularly through not-for-profit research organisations, to medical biotechnology manufacturing and export, and to fostering innovation.

Professor Leon Flicker AO, for distinguished service to medicine and medical education in the field of geriatrics, as an academic and researcher, and through contributions to improved dementia prevention and care.

Professor Peter Gray AO, for distinguished service to science in the field of bio-engineering and nanotechnology as an academic and researcher, and to professional biotechnology associations.

Ms Rebecca Peters AO, for distinguished service to the community as an advocate and campaigner for gun control, and as a global leader in the reduction of the proliferation and misuse of small arms.

Dr Chris Roberts AO, for distinguished service to science and the development and commercialisation of medical biotechnology, particularly through the cochlear implant program, and the management of respiratory conditions.

Brigadier Stephen Beaumont AM, for exceptional service in the advancement of Defence international relations, and the continued development of Defence intelligence capabilities.
Dr Vaughan Beck AM, for significant service to engineering, to tertiary education administration and research, and to professional academies.

Ms Gillian Biscoe AM, for significant service to the community through leadership and advisory roles with state, national and international public health organisations.

Associate Professor Stephen Bradshaw AM, for significant service to medicine as a vascular surgeon, to health practitioner regulation, and to medical education.
Dr Peter Cooke AM, for significant service to the performing arts, and to education, as an academic and administrator, particularly to theatre and dance.

Associate Professor William Emmerson AM, for significant service to medicine, particularly to psychiatry, to medical administration, and through contributions to mental health groups.
Brigadier Mark Holmes AM, for exceptional service in implementing approaches to modernisation in the Army, and the management of Defence contributions to institutional reform.
Brigadier Rupert Hoskin AM, for exceptional service to the representation of the Australian Defence Force, and engagement with international partners.
Mr Philip Kearns AM, for significant service to the community through support for charitable organisations, to business, and to rugby union at the elite level. 
Colonel Andrew Lowe AM, for exceptional service in the delivery of small arms training, and developing innovative approaches to training.
Conjoint Associate Professor Sandra Lowe AM, for significant service to obstetric medicine as a clinician, to medical education, and to professional organisations.
Mr Ross McCann AM, for significant service to the environment, to the promotion of sustainable resource use, to chemical engineering, and to the community.
Mr Albert Wong AM, for significant service to the community, particularly to medical research organisations, to the tertiary education sector, and to the visual arts.
Professor John Yeaman AM, for significant service to civil engineering and road asset maintenance management, to professional organisations, and to the community.
Commodore John Chandler AM CSC CSM RAN, for exceptional performance of duty in the field of submarine and major combatant systems acquisition and sustainment.
Dr Owen Slee AM (deceased), for significant service to science, particularly in the field of radio astronomy, as a researcher, author and mentor of young scientists.


I still keep getting asked about how my sailing is going and last year the answer was a consistent “no progress” – but I have a thrill awaiting next week, as I will be sailing as a guest and (keen but hopeless) crew member. I will let you know how it goes. The break allowed me to spend a lot of time over the last six weeks on my favourite sport, firmly on dry land – running. I also took the chance to go to a big bash 20:20 cricket match seeing the Sydney Sixers win against the Perth Scorchers by six wickets. I enjoyed a wonderful atmosphere at the Allianz stadium, seeing Sydney FC and Western Sydney Wanderers in a nil-nil draw. This year I am looking forward to watching some rugby and AFL. I now think that I have mastered the rules of AFL and will be at my first match in a few weeks time when the season is underway. Finally, those following real football (soccer) and the English Premier League may have noticed that yet again my team Arsenal have failed to deliver at the crucial time and have suffered a few mathematical set-backs. Even in the post-truth era I cannot pretend that they are top of the league – but we are still in the European Champions League, so I will dream on…for a few more weeks.

I hope that you had time to relax and reflect, perhaps with family or friends over the summer break. I am looking forward to meeting with as many of you as possible in 2017, to hearing of your achievements and to working with you on the challenges we face and opportunities we have at UNSW.

My very best wishes to all, Ian