Welcome remarks at UNSW-Wonkhe Dinner

Good evening everyone. To begin, I would like to pay my respects to the Bedegal people, the traditional custodians of this land, and to Elders both past and present. I extend that respect to other Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people present here tonight.

I’d also like to acknowledge our distinguished guests present tonight:

• Belinda Robinson, Chief Executive at Universities Australia
• Dr Michael Spence, Vice-Chancellor of the University of Sydney
• Professor Liz Barnes, Vice Chancellor and Chief Executive at Staffordshire University
• the Global Insights Delegation from the UK
• and distinguished members of the Australian media.

It gives me great pleasure to welcome you to UNSW tonight.

And it gives me even greater pleasure to introduce you to our special guest and keynote speaker for this evening, Mr Mark Leach.

Mark Leach is the founder, editor and CEO of Wonkhe, or as insiders call it, ‘the home of higher education wonks’.

I understand the word ‘wonk’ can mean one of two things: it’s either an informal or derogatory term for a ‘studious or hard-working person,’ or nautical slang for ‘an incompetent or inexperienced sailor.’ Which I’m afraid makes me a wonk in more ways than one.

Mark and I—along with some of my UNSW colleagues—just had a really fantastic roundtable discussion with some of the country’s most respected education journalists. That discussion has given us a solid foundation for the national conversation we want to have about the place and the importance of universities today.

As Vice-Chancellor of UNSW and as Chair of Australia’s Group of Eight, Mark’s mission to lift the quality of the higher education debate is one I share.

For 150 years in Australia—and almost 1000 in the UK— universities have played a major part in building fair, tolerant, open, and prosperous societies. They have evolved as fonts of life-changing research, hubs for deep learning, and a source of immense inspiration for young minds.

In Australia, universities’ contribution to our productive capacity was estimated at $140 billion in GDP at last count—representing a tenfold return on the Federal Government’s original investment.

Inexplicably however, the prevailing feeling—both here in Australia and globally—is that the higher education sector isn’t pulling its weight. Part of the problem is that people too often think of higher education as an ‘expenditure problem’ rather than a sound investment—fuelling commentary that universities drain the economy rather than boost it.

That couldn’t be further from the truth. In reality, the higher education sector is increasingly efficient, and competition between universities has never been greater. On top of that, consider the fact that our world is increasingly uncertain, and beset by complex and urgent problems—from climate change and inequality, to mass migration and increasing political polarisation.

Problems which the university sector is uniquely equipped to confront. That is not to say there isn’t more work to be done. Those of us inside higher education have no shortage of ideas for how to genuinely improve our sector. I think our greatest priority, though, must be to get better at articulating our own value.

If we do that, we’ll have a much stronger chance of achieving a balance of institutional reform, sustainable investment, and effective engagement between universities and the societies we serve.

With those thoughts in mind, it is my great pleasure now to introduce our keynote speaker.

Since his undergraduate days studying politics and international relations at the University of Kent, Mark Leach has steadily built his reputation as a deeply-respected voice on higher education in the UK. Mark’s early career saw him work for the National Union of Students, the Higher Education Funding Council for England, University Alliance, and GuildHE.

Mark went on to serve as a special adviser to the former Shadow Minister for Universities and Science in the UK, Shabana Mahmood MP.

While maintaining these day jobs, Mark’s Sunday afternoon side project gathered speed. And by 2014, running Wonkhe had become his full-time job. Today, Wonkhe partners with a number of prestigious universities in the UK, including Birmingham, Nottingham, Durham and Exeter. Last year, that portfolio expanded to include UNSW—Wonkhe’s first international partner university.

Mark, we’re all very much looking forward to hearing your insights tonight. Please join me in welcoming founder, editor and CEO of Wonkhe, Mark Leach.

Check against delivery

You can read an article based on Mark Leach’s remarks here.