Address at Innovative Research Universities Forum

This is an extended version of Professor Jacobs’ address.

I want to start with an acknowledgement that we stand on the land of the Darug people, and we draw inspiration from their story. I pay my respects to them as the traditional custodians of the land and I also pay my respects to their elders past and present.

Thank you to our host, Professor Barney Glover, for the introduction. I’d like to acknowledge: Professor Colin Stirling, your IRU Chair and VC of Flinders University and other colleague VCs, Professors Sandra Harding, Ian O’Connor, Eeva Leinonen and Simon Maddocks; and Conor King Executive Director of IRU.

My thanks for the opportunity to speak today at this meeting of such an outstanding group of universities. The title I was given was ‘New models of collaboration’. To suggest that what I am going to say is “New” would be grandiose, especially in this company, so perhaps better to work to the title “The importance of university partnership and collaboration’.

I know this is a topic important to each of your universities and that you have many exemplary partnerships. It certainly underpins everything I have tried to achieve as a doctor, surgeon, researcher, charity worker, erstwhile entrepreneur and university leader.

There are many effective styles of leadership so I would not suggest that the approach I favour is better than others, but I do believe that it one effective approach. It starts with achieving buy-in to an altruistic and idealistic principle to use the resources and expertise available for the greater good – to serve society and the community.

It follows from that premise that collaboration locally, nationally and globally is a crucial component of developing and implementing that objective. I use very frequently the phrase ‘generosity in partnership’ to indicate not just the importance of partnership and collaboration, but also a conviction that being generous in the conduct of the partnership opens doors, generates mutual trust, and more often than not, returns greater benefits.

When I arrived at UNSW in 2015, I commenced a six-month consultation to develop a new Strategy for UNSW. I was delighted to find that the overwhelming majority of UNSW staff shared my passion for an ambitious but altruistic and idealistic approach. Following publication of UNSW Strategy 2025, a staff survey showed just 0.9% of staff were opposed to the Strategy. It came at a moment in time when our staff were receptive to the call of an ambitious but altruistic and idealistic approach.

Sadly, a lot has changed in the last three years, not at UNSW but with Brexit, Trump, and America First. Noises from the extremes of Australian media and politics are in many ways the antithesis of a commitment to the greater good and generosity in partnership.

I suspect some would argue that, given this, my approach is hopelessly idealistic and naïve, but in the current climate I am more convinced than ever of the importance of partnership. In the words of Barack Obama, right now ‘we don’t just need one leader, we don’t just need one inspiration, what we badly need right now is that collective spirit.’

Universities have a key role to play as a force for the greater good, delivered through generosity in partnership.

I hope, today, to give you some food for thought on collaboration models by drawing on some of the 15 partnerships – both local and overseas – that I have been involved in during my time at UNSW. I should emphasise again that I know each of your universities will have equally impressive partnerships but I assume that the reason I have been invited to give this talk is because I have made efforts to increase partnership a hallmark of my time at UNSW.

So, what do I mean by collaboration characterised by ‘generosity in partnership’? I am seeking added value from the partnership which may be characterised by some or all of the following:

1. Breaking barriers: Partnership which breaks down silos within and between institutions to enable staff to work across boundaries in new and novel ways, less restrained by parochial interests. I will illustrate this with reference to Academic Health Science Partnerships.
2. Creating new interfaces: Bringing together individuals and organisations which have not typically worked effectively together to open up new opportunities whether in research, education, economic growth or social progress. Developments in Western Sydney and our TORCH partnership with China are good examples.
3. A long-term perspective: Partnership which looks beyond short-term personal or institutional gain to the long-term best interest of a region or population. I will illustrate this with development programmes in Walgett in regional NSW and Gulu in Northern Uganda.

These partnerships can be university to university, to business, to government, to community, to not-for-profit or a combination of all.

They do not necessarily involve a campus or precinct but, given the theme of this forum, I will focus my comments on that aspect of partnerships. And given we are in Western Sydney, I will consider the role of the university in anchoring regions and driving the broader education, economic and social agenda.

I will start with a form of partnership which illustrates efforts to ‘break down barriers and silos’.

A model of collaboration that I have seen work to powerful effect is that of Academic Health Science Partnerships, bringing together universities, hospitals, primary care, public health and medical research institutes across a region.

They have been a strong feature in the USA and UK for 20-30 years but were later to develop in Australia. I saw the benefits at Duke University in the 1990s as a junior doctor and had the chance to be involved in creating UCL Partners in London in 2006 and to lead the Manchester Academic Health Science Centre from 2011-15.

I saw all drive changes beyond expectations – in medicine, education, healthcare and innovation.

The advent of Advanced Health Research and Translation Centres in Australia is a step in that direction.

University-led stroke care in NSW is an example of how major improvement in outcomes can be achieved by integrated working across the university-hospital-public health interface.

Powerful academic evidence emerged that best care in stroke required prompt intervention. Traditionally, the key links in the chain were disconnected, with an Ambulance Service, an Emergency Department, a Radiology Department, and a Stroke Unit all operating in silos.

Academics and clinicians in NSW worked together to devise a number of health system reforms which they rigorously tested in clinical trials, bringing all the elements together in partnership, breaking down barriers. The upshot of this work was a complete redesign in pre-hospital and emergency stroke care in NSW.

These reforms have led to a major impact on the proportion of stroke patients accessing best-evidence care thrombolysis and improved outcomes with economic benefits of $72 million per year and most importantly, sparing people the suffering and often permanent disability that can accompany stroke.

The benefits of the stroke care story are powerful arguments for the partnership approach AHSPs can bring.

Delivering that sort of benefit is the motivation behind our regional AHSP, SPHERE, an acronym for the Sydney Partnership for Health, Education, Research and Enterprise.

SPHERE has brought together 14 leading organisations including NSW three Local Health Districts; three universities in WSU, UNSW and UTS; seven research institutes including Garvan, Victor Chang, NeuRA, the Children’s Cancer Institute, the Black Dog Institute and the Sydney Children’s Hospitals network.

It has provided a way to break down silos and tackle healthcare delivery in a more holistic way across the fastest growing population area in Australia, a region of more than two million people and some of the most culturally diverse and disadvantaged people in our nation.

The project required partner organisations to act generously and put significant funding, over $25m, into a pot to be used for the greater good, with no guarantee that each individual organisation would benefit.

That funding was used to incentivise clinicians, academics and professional staff across all 14 partner organisations to generate new ideas, break down silos and, importantly, bring in additional external resources.

We are already seeing results, with 12 Clinical Academic Groups focussed on areas a diverse as Aboriginal health and wellbeing, genomic testing and patient-reported outcomes in cancer care.

As a doctor by profession, I have often wondered why, despite so many top-quality people and institutions, Sydney is not seen as a world-leading centre of biomedical and health excellence.

The missing link, to my mind, has been a relentless, determined commitment to breaking down barriers to effective partnering and collaboration.

SPHERE and the other 7 AHRTCs provide that element and may be the catalyst for Australia shining amongst the leading nations for health care, health research and health education worldwide.

The second area of partnership I want to focus on is creating new interfaces.

Partnership which brings together individuals and organisations which have not typically worked effectively together to open up new opportunities whether in research, education, economic growth or social progress.

Barney Glover and I have just come from the announcement by the Premier of NSW of one such partnership – a joint venture between Western Sydney University and UNSW to develop an engineering hub in the heart of Parramatta.

We are joining forces and taking some risks in the spirit of generosity in partnership, to deliver an engineering course to students who may not otherwise have accessed it, in Australia’s fastest growing region and manufacturing heartland, Western Sydney.

The course will be highly progressive. It will allow students to transition between UNSW and UWS and will be closely engaged with industry. And it will provide critical support for the government’s ambitious goal of creating 200,000 knowledge jobs in Western Sydney.

This and SPHERE are just the starting point for joint ventures in Western Sydney between UNSW, WSU and other universities.

Last year the NUW Alliance was created – comprising the University of Newcastle (N), UNSW (U) and the University of Wollongong (W). This is not a merger but was specifically set up to enable our universities to work together across a range of initiatives – with government, business and the community – to advance the region.

That partnership model has quickly led to a major opportunity for the three universities in the NUW Alliance and Western Sydney University – to shape on the development of the Western Sydney Aerotropolis.

Last month all four university VCs and our wonderful NUW Alliance Director, Bran Black, signed a statement of intent with the NSW State Government to take a lead role in the Aerotropolis development.

Imagine what we could create here – through a genuine commitment to partnership to add value for the greater good – in Australia’s fastest growing region and third largest economy.

The vision is for NUW and WSU to form a collaborative ‘multiversity’ innovation hub that will not only be a first for Australia, but an international exemplar in industry-engaged teaching and research.

Australia needs more science, technology, engineering and maths graduates.

The plan for this multiversity is to fill this vacuum with a STEM acceleration high school, industry-tailored vocational training, and, as its centrepiece, world-leading aerospace, engineering and science research and knowledge transfer capability.

It will deliver professional development opportunities to create a highly skilled, workforce to keep pace with evolving and specialised needs.

It will accelerate and steward the growth of the precinct’s economic and scientific ecosystem, creating connections and opportunities to attract researchers, start-ups, corporates and industry to each other and to their international partners adding value to Australia’s single largest coordinated infrastructure project.
This is an incredibly exciting prospect.

We have the opportunity here to shape a modern, high-tech, highly productive and economically successful region if we can continue to work together with a long-term perspective maintaining a commitment to generosity in partnership.

The Aerotropolis can emulate other successful precincts internationally where high-tech and global companies gain access to a pool of researchers and graduates, and specialised laboratories and spaces.

They want to tap in to the culture of innovation that is a part of a university’s DNA.

In my Go8 Chair role I have repeatedly highlighted the need in Australia for greater industry-university collaboration to fill the translational gap in the discovery to commercialisation pipeline.

Maximising university-industry partnership requires goodwill but like SPHERE it also requires incentives.

I have put to the Australian Government, options which would incentivise business-university partnership – including an R&D tax incentive collaboration premium to push industry to universities and a dedicated Australian Translational Future Fund for research not covered by the Medical Research Future Fund, to push universities towards commercialisation.

Of course, unity of purpose and generosity of partnership are not the sole domain of healthcare partnerships or local partnerships.

They are also crucial in international partnerships.

These characteristics are central to the TORCH Innovation Precinct, which is a collaborative venture between UNSW and our Chinese partners.

In China, there are some 150 TORCH parks which, alone, generate 11% of that nation’s GDP, 10% of industrial output and close to 16% of total foreign exports.

The UNSW precinct is the first outside of China and links Chinese companies seeking application and commercialisation with our research discovery pipeline at UNSW. In just 18 months over 20 companies have agreed contracts of over $100m with many more in negotiation.

Deloitte’s independent modelling has estimated it will generate around $1 billion in its first 10 years.

The UNSW TORCH precinct was announced in the Great Hall of the People in Beijing by former Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull and Chinese Premier Li Keqiang in 2016.

Since that time, we have made rapid progress in partnership development with projects spanning energy, water and environment, advanced materials, advanced manufacturing, ICT, bio-technology and life sciences and social policy.

My favourite example is the power cable with a graphene core developed by Professor Sean Li which improves the efficiency of power transfer by about 5%. Given the scale of manufacture of power cables in China you will understand the potential economic and environmental impact.

It is my hope that the TORCH venture will involve other Australian universities and pull in Australian companies.

Another example of international collaboration is UNSW’s alliance with Arizona State University and Kings College in London the PLuS Alliance. There are many research and educational aspects to this partnership including an exciting plan for a new PLuS Alliance Engineering campus in central London.

This brings together two of the world’s leading engineering faculties ASU and UNSW to address the shortage of engineers globally and develop a novel application-based, industry-focused engineering programme. Announcements will be made soon and I hope that this is a model the PLuS Alliance can replicate elsewhere.

In the final part of my talk I want to briefly focus on partnerships which exemplify the third of my characteristics of generosity in partnership – looking beyond short-term personal or institutional gain to the long-term best interest of a region or population.

UNSW has one such initiative partnering with the Indigenous people of Walgett, in far north-west NSW.

In this project we support the work of the Dharriwaa Elders Group in bringing systemic change in the health and wellbeing of Aboriginal people in the town.

Walgett is one of the most disadvantaged towns in Australia.

It has a population of 2,300, 70% of whom are Aboriginal with high rates of poverty, overcrowded housing, poor physical and mental health, disability, low employment participation, and poor educational outcomes.

We had been working with the Walgett community since 2006 and in 2016 were invited by the Dharriwaa Elders Group to partner with them, over the next 10 years to address these challenges.

The partnership aims to give the Aboriginal community greater control and capacity, to increase the number of young people in education, training and employment, to improve health and wellbeing and to improve the sustainability of energy, water, land and natural resource management.

Such an initiative has the potential to become a template for success in other communities.

We have a similar partnership in one of the most deprived areas of the world, Gulu in northern Uganda which is still recovering from dreadful civil war with the ‘Lords Resistance Army’. Gulu University, founded about 10 years ago, is a key part of recovery for the region. We are partnering with the University and government in health, engineering, capacity building through education and post-conflict studies.

One of the most memorable moments of my time at UNSW was an outcome of the Gulu partnership. During a visit to Gulu by 30 UNSW engineering and humanities students who worked with Ugandan counterparts, I saw their eyes being opened to a different culture and environment and to the potential they had to work in partnership to make a difference. I watched the impact on the way they saw themselves and the world knowing it was having a life time impact in much the same way as my first experience in East Africa had on me as a medical student 40 years ago.

It was a magical, moving experience for me especially seeing it turn in to generosity in partnership in action. Four of the students working with Ugandan colleagues and farmers have since established a not for profit start-up bringing Ugandan coffee to Sydney. And apart from anything else the coffee is superb.

I should finish by noting that the sorts of partnerships and collaborations I have described are not without their challenges. They require ongoing, persistent commitment to generosity in partnership. There is a need to prevent staff from all partners reverting to narrow thinking or self-interest and to ensure that strategic alignment of the partners is maintained.

They require constant efforts to keep the leaders of the organisations focused on the long-term benefits the partnerships will bring for all even when that means forgoing short-term financial or other benefits for their organisation.

And they require patient, persistent attention to the detail of agreements, getting beyond the usual approach to legal and other documents to capture the generosity needed to bring together organisations of different scale, resource, expertise and quality.

Despite the challenges I am convinced that collaboration and generosity in partnership are keys to success in the complex national and global environment we now work in.

Australian universities are good at collaboration and partnership. I know you will all have examples at least as impressive as those I have mentioned. One wonderful example led by Universities Australia during Barney’s time as Chair was the Respect.Now.Always initiative which brought all of our universities together to take action on the vexed issue of sexual harassment and assault. The benefits of collaboration with a spirit of generosity in partnership are clear. We need to be relentless in encouraging staff within our organisations to escape the barriers of schools, centres, faculties and institutes and in working with business, government, not for profit and community organisations to create new opportunities and add value for the good.

If we are to fulfil our role as servants of our communities, collaboration – across disciplines, across universities and across borders – is the way of the future for universities, for business, for governments.

In the beautiful words of Japanese author, Ryunosuke Satoro, ‘Individually we are one drop. Together we are an ocean.’

Thank you.