Driver of transformation has a far-reaching vision - profile in The Australian

By Sian Powell

This article is reprinted with permission from The Australian. It was first published in The Australian's Higher Education section,, which is published in The Australian every Wednesday.

Ian Jacobs says he saw the immense potential of the University of NSW before he took charge as vice-chancellor in 2015.

He was having a look around the campus considering the idea of running the institution. It was a sunny day, he remembers, and he was standing at the top of the mall on the Kensington campus in Sydney, looking down the length of walkway towards the thoroughfare of Anzac Parade. Hundreds of students, staff and academics were walking, talking, thinking and consulting.

Here, he says he thought, was a great university, and “a fantastic platform for the sorts of things that I wanted to do”.

These included a root-and-branch revamp of the entire institution, costing at least $3 billion and lasting until 2025.

“What excited me was the opportunity to mobilise all of the resources, the expertise, the energy of a university like this to have as big a possible impact on people in NSW and Australia and globally,” he says. “That’s what we set about to do in developing the UNSW 2025 strategy.”

The overall strategy, Jacobs says, includes digitising the educational offering; recruiting more indigenous students and more students from poorer backgrounds; recruiting more female academics; increasing the university’s connections with industry; dramatically increasing commercial income and commercial outputs; increasing efficiency and the quality of professional services; setting up an institute of global development; and recruiting 100 “stellar” academics from Australia
and around the world.

These recruits potentially could include Nobel prize-winners and, almost as a joke, a parking spot has been reserved for the university’s first Nobel laureate, who in fact has been recruited — the 2016 prize winner in chemistry, Sir Fraser Stoddart, 76, who begins his part-time role next year.

Perhaps most important, it seems, the aim of the 2025 strategy is to get the university moving up that greasy rankings pole, and it’s likely the stellar recruits will help with this climb.

Jacobs says the grand plan is eventually to see UNSW recognised as one of the top 50 research universities in the world.

This standing, he explains, can be calculated by averaging the levels reached on three international ranking indexes: the Times Higher Education World University Rankings, the QS World University Rankings and the Academic Ranking of World Universities, also known as the Shanghai ranking.

Right now, Jacobs says, the university is sitting somewhere in the mid-80s range, according to the average across the three indexes. To get from there to a spot somewhere in the top 50 will be “a major challenge”, he says, requiring substantial investment in extra staff and increased infrastructure and resources.

The whole 2025 strategy incorporates breathtaking change for a university that has been successfully operating since 1949, and some very quiet critics think it’s far too much change, too quickly.

Yet Jacobs, the British son of working-class parents and the first in his family to go to university, appears to have no doubts. It seems the march to success is built into the Jacobs psyche.

He won a place at a good school, went to Cambridge University, flew through medicine, helped set up a years-long, wide ranging and potentially lifesaving medical trial in ovarian cancer screening, segued into the dean of medicine role at University College, London, on to become vice president at the University of Manchester, and so to NSW.

Despite the appeal of working in the research field — and Jacobs is a highly cited scholar — he was happy to move to the management side. “What really excited me in all these things was the opportunity to bring people together across boundaries to have a big impact and mobilise resources and energy and ideas, to have a big impact on the lives of other people,” he says, adding that successfully working with teams in research is integral to the success of the research. “The success that I’ve had, as such, in this is about bringing people together to tackle big challenges.”

This year, he has taken this management bent even further, chairing the prestigious Group of Eight research universities, and doing his best to trumpet the importance of higher education to the nation.

Now 60, Jacobs arrived in Sydney with his wife three years ago, leaving his three adult children in Britain. He dedicated his first six to nine months on the job to consulting and engaging with staff, students, alumni and other interested parties at the university, eventually devising the 2025 strategy.

The strategy has three broad headings, he says: first, academic excellence in research and education; second, social engagement; and third, global impact. “It was very well received, not surprisingly because we consulted so widely,” he says.

A survey conducted in the early days found 90 per cent of university respondents supported or strongly supported the UNSW 2025 strategy and 9.1 per cent were indifferent.

“In my experience of life in the university environment, it’s unusual to get that level of consensus,” Jacobs says. “So that was really exciting. That was a good foundation, but of course people said, ‘Well this is a bold, ambitious strategy, it’s trying to do everything.’”

The huge scope of the 2025 strategy, Jacobs adds, should not be interpreted as any kind of criticism of the way the university had been operating up until 2015 under Fred Hilmer, who spent eight years at the helm.

“I think that I arrived at a time when the university was very well established,” Jacobs says. “It was in strong financial shape and it has great infrastructure. I had an opportunity to accelerate that trajectory and that’s what we’re aiming to do.”

There is a lot at stake. Last year 59,781 students were enrolled at the university, 20,204 of them international students. Jacobs says UNSW is “pretty close to capacity” in student numbers and in the future “we are looking at other ways of increasing our total reach”.

These include increasing and refining online education, which he says will become more important as time goes by.

Interested parties at the university have found the efforts to develop the UNSW strategy, the focus on digitisation (including online education), push for academic excellence in research and its translation and the innovation in delivering quality education to be “really important”, Jacobs says.

“But the thing that really excited people were the social engagement and global impact agendas.”

The $3bn estimated expense of the 2025 overhaul, how to fund it, was carefully thought through, he says, adding that he and his team calculated the money could be found across the 10 years of the strategy, bearing in mind that the university had a turnover of $2bn a year.

The idea is, he says, that about half the required funds would come from income generation, from providing education, from working with business and industry, from philanthropy and other sources.

The remaining half would be found by “being more efficient with the money we already have”. In 2016, the UNSW approved the 2025 strategy’s implementation plan and it was all systems go.

“We’re 18 months into the process of implementation,” Jacobs says. “We’ve delivered quite a lot of the change. We have another nine months of major change and the benefits of implementing the strategy are beginning to flow.”