Dr David Williams Lecture, at King’s College, St Lucia, Queensland 
Wednesday 26 August, 2020
Delivered by Professor Deborah Terry AO, Vice-Chancellor and President, The University of Queensland


Thank you very much, Liam – and good evening everyone. 

Can I begin by acknowledging that we are gathered here tonight on the traditional lands of the Turrbal and Yugara people; and that we honour their elders and their continuing cultural and spiritual connection to this land, as we walk together on the path to reconciliation.

I would like to start by acknowledging:

  • Mr Greg Eddy, Master of King’s College
  • Dr Brett Robinson, President of King’s College Council
  • Reverend David Baker, Moderator of the Uniting Church in Australia,
  • Mr David Williams, son of the Late Dr David Williams
  • The Hon Justice Martin Daubney AM, Patron of the King’s College Foundation and Former President of King’s College Council
  • Members and Friends of King’s College.

In preparing for tonight, I read through the list of very distinguished speakers who have delivered the Dr David Williams Lecture since it first began in 1995.

On this basis, I can say that it is an absolute honour to be joining that list.

I am still in my first month as UQ’s Vice-Chancellor, so I’m thrilled to have been invited to King’s College, so early in my tenure.

* * *

My topic for this evening’s lecture is: ‘What is the role of our universities in pandemic recovery?’

Every so often, I hear predictions that universities will soon face some kind of existential threat.

The doomsayers would have you believe that universities are becoming obsolete, because they no longer serve society’s needs.

It’s a judgement that perplexes me, because I think it is increasingly clear that the opposite is true.

Universities have always been a cornerstone of strong civil societies.

They are the birthplace of novel ideas – frequently brave and controversial.

They are vessels where individual contributions to discourse rebound like atoms, and gradually extend the boundaries of human knowledge.

And these vital institutions are not frozen in time.

In my speech earlier this year at the National Press Club, I cited Professor Alison Wolf, who hails from King’s College.

Not this King’s College – but, King’s College, London.

Professor Wolf noted that universities are enormously long-lived and successful compared with almost all other institutions in society.

Our constant is change – we’ve stood the test of time precisely because we are adaptive.

And because we are the go-to sites for vigorous intellectual exploration; for new knowledge; and for break-through discoveries.

* * *

Universities also play a profound role in our communities.

Contrary to a prevailing assumption, universities do not exist in isolation.

Indeed, they never have – from their medieval origins in Europe, universities have always been engaged in the wider world.

And academia has always been a seminal part of progressive urban centres.

Our universities deliver the skilled graduate labour force required for local and national productivity and growth.

Their discoveries help drive the industries and the jobs of the future.

For these reasons, and many more, I’m of the view that – right now – we need our universities more than ever.

* * *

Without doubt, however, the COVID-19 pandemic is the most disruptive event that the higher education sector has faced in decades.

And there are both challenges and opportunities associated with this disruption.

I view the pandemic as an accelerant of change.

It has super-charged trends that have been emerging for over a decade now.

This is most immediately apparent in the way we have embraced the digital, remote and non-contact delivery of all manner of services.

It can be seen in the dramatic increase in online shopping; the decline in cash payments; the sudden acceptance of telehealth services; or the many changes in how we work and interact with one another.

It’s a shift that occurred across our university campuses earlier this year, too, as we switched to purely online learning.  

There is, of course, one important cohort of our students that has not been able to return to our campuses at all this year.

That’s the large contingent of international students who didn’t make it into Australia before our international borders were closed earlier this year.

Thankfully, many of these international students have been able to continue with their studies, online – from overseas – for now.

But, longer term, the pipeline of prospective students coming to Australia from overseas is expected to be constrained.

This is because of the combination of uncertainty around international travel, increased geopolitical tensions and the prospect of a global recession.

Modelling by Universities Australia has estimated that Australia’s universities will suffer revenue losses of between $3.1 billion and $4.8 billion this year.[1]

This is a significant challenge for all of us who work in university management.

So, the pandemic has given us pause to consider: ‘What is our purpose – and what’s the strategy and the business model that will enable us to fulfil that purpose?’

* * *

As I said at the outset, our universities are incredibly resilient and dynamic.

We will adapt because we have to, for the benefit of the nation.

I don’t say that flippantly – we need a strong university sector to both inform Australia’s recovery from the pandemic – and to help drive that recovery.

My key message to you this evening is that our universities will contribute to Australia’s recovery in three really significant ways:

First, as a sector that produces broad flow-on economic and social benefits for the nation.

Second, as a source of deep expertise and new knowledge.

And third, as a core partner in the innovation ecosystem that will drive economic growth and job creation.

* * *

On the first issue of the economic and social capital that accrues in Australia due to our universities, I’ll start by stating the obvious.

Our universities produce the skilled graduates that are essential for economic growth and diversification.

As we look to the future, however, we know that we need to support our graduates as they enter a rapidly changing work environment.

As Deloitte argue, skills will be the job currency of the future.[2]

UQ, for example, now offers a broad suite of Executive Education short courses, graduate study options and customised learning solutions.

Micro-credentials are also emerging as another means of certifying attainment of specific learning, without the long-term commitment of completing a degree.

By offering these skills-based educational opportunities, universities are supporting graduates to pursue life-long learning, so they can continuously adapt to shifting workplace expectations.

We’re also seeking to prepare our students for the future of work by getting the balance right between deep disciplinary knowledge – and broad, transferable qualities, such as communication; collaboration; and entrepreneurial skills.

As our Chief Scientist, Alan Finkel, puts it, employers are looking for T-shaped workers – where deep expertise and so-called soft skills are mutually reinforcing attributes, not binary choices.

Why T-shaped? As Alan Finkel says: “Your discipline gives you the structure while you grow. Then you have the capacity to branch out.”[3]

In his words, we need to avoid raising a generation that is, and I quote, “perhaps ready to talk – but with nothing distinctive to say”.[4]

We are also guided by the fact that navigating our future requires fundamentally human skills. 

So, our graduates need to have the empathy to help humanise our digital future and ensure that ethical considerations are centre-stage in a technology-enabled world.

* * *

The second important contribution that we are making to pandemic recovery involves expertise, insights and the generation of new knowledge.

Right now, teams of researchers across the country are working tirelessly to improve our understanding of the virus, as we seek to slow its spread, or, better still, stop it in its tracks.

Researchers are developing better methods of tracking outbreaks, and better patient treatments.

Economists are building models that will help us to avoid the worst of the downturn.

And, here at UQ, we have a brilliant team – led by Professor Paul Young – that has dedicated their life this year to developing a COVID-19 vaccine.

They could not have advanced their vaccine candidate without the support of both the Commonwealth and state governments, and the other 2,600 donors who have generously provided support.

The vaccine is now in human clinical trials.

Of course, it’s too early to claim victory, but the results, so far, are looking very promising – and that should give us all a sense of hope that we will recover from this pandemic.

The point I want to make is that the expertise that exists in our universities is an extraordinary resource for the nation.

This expertise is both deep and broad – and it’s been hard to miss over recent months.

Our researchers – from UQ, as well as universities across Australia – have been visible in the media on a daily basis, offering advice to a community that is hungry for accurate information about the virus.

As a result, the community has become intrigued by previously obscure scientific pursuits – like epidemiology, virology and vaccine technology.

Thankfully, this expertise has seeped into our public discourse – and it has influenced our community’s positive response to the COVID restrictions.

It’s a clear example of how university-based expertise has helped us – as a society – to deal with one of humanity’s great challenges.

This well of expertise is ready, willing and able to help respond to the other great threats of our time – whether that be climate change, natural disasters, famine or disease.

* * *

The third way that our universities will contribute to pandemic recovery is by continuing to produce research that can be translated into commercial outcomes to drive the renewal and diversification of our economy.

There is a long and proud history of break-through R&D in our universities.

Think of the life-changing impact of: IVF, the cervical cancer vaccine, the bionic ear or spray-on skin.

Each of these inventions emerged from research conducted at our universities. 

As a nation, we produce 4% of the world’s research publications despite being home to just 0.3% of the world’s population.[5]

However, without doubt, we need to become better at translating our research into commercial benefits for the nation.

In the 2019 index that ranks economies according to their innovation performance, Australia ranked only 22nd in the world.[6]

So, despite the fact that we punch well above our weight for innovation inputs, such as R&D; for a long time Australia has lagged most other developed nations for innovation outputs.

But this situation is shifting – according to Ernst & Young, almost 17,000 companies in Australia collaborated with a university last year.

For every one dollar those businesses invested in collaborative research with a university, they earned a return of almost $4.50.[7] 

A good deal of this collaborative activity is happening in dedicated university–industry precincts.

These are places that bring together universities, research institutes, government agencies, industry partners and start-ups.

As Bruce Katz and Julie Wagner of the Brookings Institution put it:

Innovation districts are “the ultimate mash up of entrepreneurs and educational institutions … all connected by transit, powered by clean energy, wired for digital technology, and fuelled by caffeine.”[8]

The point is that proximity sparks possibility: business innovation is easier when you work next door to – and team up with – clever people working at the cutting edge of research.

In the United States, when you visit MIT and Boston, it’s hard to tell where one ends and the other begins.

There is a wonderful example of this kind of innovation precinct that’s almost visible from King’s College.

If you go straight across the river from here to Woolloongabba, you’ll find the Translational Research Institute, a vibrant partnership between Queensland Health, UQ, QUT and Mater Research.

Here on our St Lucia campus, Boeing has established a dedicated research and technology facility to explore new frontiers in aerospace, alongside our researchers.

And in 2018, Siemens announced a software grant to UQ with an in-kind commercial value of over half a billion dollars to give students exposure to digital technologies being used by leading companies globally.

* * *

Going back to my earlier comments, if you have any doubt about why universities matter as we look to a post-pandemic world, then it is more than affirmed by the extraordinary work of Professor Paul Young and his team who are developing the COVID-19 vaccine.

Of course, our students and our graduates embody the spirit of our mission to educate, to forge new frontiers of knowledge, to share evidence and expertise, and to be the lifeblood of our local communities.

But as the New Zealand Education Act states, the role of universities is much larger than just teaching and research.[9]

We must also be the conscience of society – as we face the challenges and uncertainty of the future.

Our universities are places where freedoms of thought and speech are founding ideals that pervade all that we do.

They are places of knowledge, critique and dialogue.

Places where understanding, ideas and perspectives are shaped – and then
re-shaped – by facts, evidence, open debate and deep reflection.

In this way, our universities serve to strengthen our democracy and ensure that we – as individuals, as communities, as a nation and as humanity – have the conviction and the courage to confront the big challenges that lie ahead of us.

As the former US Ambassador to Australia, Jeffrey Bleich, so eloquently put it, universities play a critical role in helping us to, and I quote: “see the future and prepare future generations to succeed in it”.[10]

Thank you.


[10] https://www.universitiesaustralia.edu.au/media-item/higher-education-conference-keynote-address-ambassador-ret-jeff-bleich/


Note: Some parts of this Lecture were originally included in a speech delivered by Professor Deborah Terry at the National Press Club, in Canberra, on 26 February 2020.