National Press Club, Canberra
Wednesday 10 March 2021
Delivered by Professor Deborah Terry AO, Vice-Chancellor and President, The University of Queensland


The Ngunnawal word for hello.

Speaking Indigenous words – like acknowledging Country – is about respect. 

Respect for what has come before.

Respect for ancestors and Elders.

And it’s about creating a shared future out of our cultural traditions and our identities.

With that in mind, I pay my respects to the traditional owners of this place – the Ngunnawal and Ngambri peoples.

I acknowledge their deep contributions to knowledges, education and practices that have sustained our environments for thousands of years.


I also want to thank the National Press Club for inviting me to speak today.

This is the home of the fourth estate.  

A forum for ideas and discussion – sometimes very lively.

Here, civil society has a chance to speak truth to power. 

To propose new ideas – or give voice to challenging notions.

In that sense, last week’s speaker, Grace Tame, the 2021 Australian of the Year, is a tough act to follow. 

Very tough.

Ms Tame’s speech was in the great tradition of truth-telling that has occurred on this platform, since 1963.

Many of the truths that are told here are hard to face.

But we need to face them.

Because, without truth, Australia cannot grow.

And Australia’s universities – institutions that, as Sir Robert Menzies once put it, are all about “the free search for truth” – are purpose-built for seeking and navigating those moments of truth.

And that’s what I want to talk about today.


Tomorrow, we’ll mark one year since the World Health Organisation declared COVID-19 a pandemic.

One year of heartbreak.

One year of disruption.

Worldwide, 2.5 million people have now died from COVID-19.

In the United States alone, more than half a million people have perished. 

In Brazil, the death toll is more than 250 thousand people.

Here in Australia, our overall death toll is just over 900.

I offer my sincere condolences to all of the people who have lost loved ones to the pandemic.


But Australia’s death toll is much lower than most of Europe, Asia and the Americas.

In fact, our pandemic response has been ranked eighth in the world.

All of which begs the question: Why?

What did we get right?

Fundamentally, I believe Australia’s relative success reflects strong leadership and a community united against a common threat.

It also owes much to the fact that, from the outset, our governments listened to and acted on the advice of our medical experts and researchers.

They’ve provided timely evidence and guidance to anticipate the likely course of the virus, map its path, and understand more about how it operates.

And they’ve contributed to global work on novel diagnostics, new therapeutics, and vaccine development. 

And those medical experts – who are all university educated – have been trained to follow evidence and find truth.

There’s a lesson there.

If our nation wants to find the best solutions to the hardest challenges we face, we need the university sector.

We need their expertise, their innovation, their research.

That’s why I was pleased when – in his first major speech as Minister for Education – Alan Tudge recently said, and I quote:

“We want our universities to be our partners in policy making. We need our best minds to help us solve our biggest challenges.”
I couldn’t agree more. 

But we also need to invest in and listen to that expertise.

Because, make no mistake, the standing army of men and women who work in and come out of Australia’s universities are our greatest renewable resource. 


Returning to our national experience of the pandemic, news consumption has increased dramatically over the past year.

And during those 12 months, media monitoring group, Isentia, found that university experts were interviewed or quoted 67 thousand times in media stories about COVID-19. 

Sixty-seven thousand times.

Those epidemiologists, virologists and public health experts inoculated the public against the contagion of misinformation that infected many online forums and contributed to so much death and heartbreak overseas.

University-based experts explained everything from the goal of flattening the curve, to the mathematics of social distancing, and the dynamics of panic buying.

And, in doing so, they helped us navigate the disruption and the uncertainty. 

They kept us safe and they prepared us for recovery.


That’s because Australians trust their experts.

A new survey conducted by JWS Research, for Universities Australia, looked specifically at this issue of who Australians trust most to provide facts and evidence in public debates.

The survey of 1500 people found that university experts remain one of the most trusted groups of any major profession.

Indeed, university-based researchers, scientists and experts ranked second; only slightly behind the doctors and other health professionals.

We trust our university-based experts, because they help us to make better decisions – informed by evidence – for the benefit of our families, our communities, our nation.


This is no surprise.

After all, universities are places where new ideas are tested – and conventional wisdom challenged.

Each new research study, experiment, or paper seeks to review what has come before it. 

As new evidence and ideas emerge, they are rigorously peer reviewed.

And, in this way, our universities promote and progress knowledge – and protect us from ignorance. 

The point I’m driving at is that now – more than ever – Australia needs the hard-won facts and knowledge that universities promote and protect.


COVID-19 is one of the most disruptive events that our higher education sector has ever faced. 

Revenue losses have been significant, and this has led to job losses in many parts of our sector.  

Every one of those job losses is devastating for the individual, their family and their community.

Universities feel these losses deeply.


The pandemic has also been an accelerant of change. 

One of the immediate changes – the switch to purely online learning last year – was hardly unique, amongst all of the other disruption. 

Much like working from home and home schooling, the abrupt shift to online learning will leave a lasting legacy.

It will allow us greater flexibility in how we offer our courses – and give our students more choice in how and when they study.


It’s harder to be positive about the other big change that has occurred at our universities over the past year – the loss of so many international students from our campuses.

We notice and feel their absence every day.

We miss the vibrancy that they bring to our campuses. 

We miss the diversity of opinions and perspectives they bring to our debates. 

The absence of so many international students has reinforced just how much they bring to Australia. 

And I’m not just referring to the financial contribution they make to universities.

I’m talking about the social and economic life they bring to our cities and regions – covering everything from hospitality to tourism to retail to residential accommodation.

I’m talking about the human capital we gain when those talented young men and women stay in Australia. 

And I’m talking about the geopolitical capital that accrues when those graduates take their Australian credentials and connections back home.

Australia’s system of international education, dating back to the Colombo Plan, is one of the reasons why we are considered a global leader in soft power.

So, as the vaccine program is successfully rolled out, we look forward to working with all levels of government to progress the safe return of international students to our campuses.


Thankfully, many of our international students have continued with their studies, online – from offshore – for now.

But, longer term, the pipeline of students coming to Australia from overseas will be disrupted for several years.

This is a significant challenge for our universities. 

The pandemic has, therefore, given us pause to reflect on our purpose – and the strategies and actions that we must take to ensure we have the capacity to fulfil our purpose in the longer term.

We will evolve, as we always have.

We will adapt, as we always do.

And we will keep seeking truth and new ideas, as the national interest dictates.


I don’t speak of truth-seeking flippantly.

As I said – now more than ever – Australia needs the hard-won knowledge and facts that universities promote and protect.

If anything, the work of our universities will become even more valuable to the nation over the coming decade.

After all, our universities will help drive Australia’s recovery from the pandemic in three significant ways.

First, by producing the broad, flow-on economic and social benefits that our nation needs.

Second, by educating the skilled graduates who will shape our future.

And third, as a primary producer of innovation, we have the capacity to help turbo-charge Australia’s economic growth and job creation.


Our universities already make an immense contribution to the health and wellbeing, prosperity and sustainability of our nation.

For instance, in 2018, our universities contributed 41 billion dollars to the Australian economy and supported almost 260 thousand jobs.  

University-based research is another critical contribution – with estimates that every dollar invested in research generates five dollars for the Australian economy. 

That’s a five-fold return on investment.

Our universities also have a profound impact in regional Australia. 

Almost seven out of 10 graduates from regional universities stay in regional communities after their graduation – strengthening those communities and economies.   

According to recent modelling, regional universities contribute almost two-and-a-half billion dollars to their economies.  

But the sector’s impact in regional Australia is far more than educational or economic. 

Regional universities make sportsgrounds available to local sporting teams.

They boost literacy programs. 

They connect farms with new technology.

They partner with local governments, businesses and community groups.

In short, they are as critical to regional Australia in the early 21st century as the stump-jump plough was in the late 19th century.


Moving onto the second point about how universities will contribute to the recovery – and it’s impossible to quantify the value of our role in educating Australia’s future workforce.

It’s impossible because we’re making generational investments in ideas and people beyond the horizon of quarterly earnings.

In other words, we’re trying to equip our students and our nation for a future we cannot see.

That’s why we place our trust in the classical principles of education – and cultivate the critical thinking capabilities of our students.

Aristotle captured this principle when he said:

“It is the mark of an educated mind to be able to entertain a thought, without accepting it.”

The mark of an educated mind hasn’t changed across the centuries. 

But how we educate minds has evolved – dramatically. 

The curriculum that our students study – across most disciplines – is unrecognisable from a generation ago. 

A contemporary degree in mining engineering, for instance, puts the digital reality of the industry centre-stage.

Our universities are constantly adding new disciplines of study that reflect changes in industry and workplaces.

That’s why we have new offerings in fintech; design and visualisation; mechatronics; data science; machine learning; and predictive analytics.

It’s why we provide rich, work-integrated learning experiences across all of our faculties.

And it’s why we offer an increasingly broad range of double degrees to cater for the diverse careers of the future.


In other words, universities are the future makers.

We help students become experts. 

And, we help graduates remain experts – by giving them opportunities to refresh their skills continually.

To up-skill … cross-skill … or re-skill.

That’s why the sector welcomed the 50 thousand new short-course places – on top of the thousands of additional student places– announced in the last Federal Budget.

By offering more of these skills-based learning opportunities, our universities are supporting graduates to adapt to a changing workplace.


We’re also seeking to prepare our students for the future by getting the balance right between deep disciplinary knowledge and skills – and broader, transferable qualities.

Those important traits include things like communication; collaboration; analytical skills; critical thinking and entrepreneurial mindsets.

Our former Chief Scientist, Alan Finkel, summarised this notion when he referred to the fact that employers today are looking forT-shaped workers.”

Why T-shaped? 

As Professor Finkel said: 

“Your discipline gives you the structure while you grow. Then you have the capacity to branch out.”

Consider that for a moment.

Imagine the future Australia could create with a standing army of graduates who have the empathy, the creativity and the entrepreneurial spirit to apply their disciplinary expertise in entirely new ways.

The social and economic benefits would be transformational.


This brings me to my third key message for today: innovation.

As a nation, we have a proud history of invention.

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. 

Australia is a research powerhouse.

We produce around four per cent of the world’s scientific publications, despite having just 0.3 per cent of the world’s population.


In the 2020 Global Innovation Index, Australia ranked 13th out of 131 economies for innovation inputs.


That’s a solid result – reflecting the strength of our research institutions and infrastructure; and our human capital.

But Australia fell down the list to 31st when it came to measuring innovation outputs.

And our overall innovation ranking was 23rd.

The only way of interpreting this is that we are global leaders at the front-end of innovation – in research and discovery science. 

But, as a nation, we’re under-performing at the back-end of innovation.

Not enough of our research is being translated to drive social and economic benefits for the nation.  

Not enough of our inventions are being commercialised in a way that creates new industries and jobs, here, in Australia.

In short, we’re missing opportunities to make our own future.


In raising this topic, I’m not suggesting that Australia’s translation pipeline is empty. 

Nor am I saying that Australia’s innovation economy is stagnant.

Quite the opposite is true.

Indeed, across the country, new university-industry precincts are now emerging with great ambition and vision.

These precincts put industry and academia in close proximity – and this helps to spark new possibility.

Julie Wagner, of the Brookings Institution, is one of the world’s leading experts on innovation precincts.

Following her 2017 visit to Melbourne, she penned an article with Bruce Katz, that said:

“Australia’s universities have the research chops to become a driver of innovative, market-led growth.”

CSL – the company manufacturing the Oxford / AstraZeneca COVID-19 vaccine – is a shining light in the world of research commercialisation.

CSL’s global centre of R&D excellence is located in Melbourne – surrounded by a critical mass of universities, medical research institutes and hospitals.

Last year, on this stage, I pointed to the many other innovation precincts that are now appearing in our major cities.

Richmond Agripark and Westmead Innovation District in western Sydney.

Lot Fourteen in Adelaide, home of the Australian Space Agency.

The Murdoch Health and Knowledge Precinct in Perth.

The Ecosciences Precinct in Brisbane, home to the Translational Research Institute.

And over recent months, we’ve seen new hubs and partnerships appear.

There’s the new Nowra Industry 4.0 Hub, a collaboration with the University of Wollongong.

The Woodside Monash Energy Partnership that has emerged out of the successful Woodside Future Lab.

And James Cook University has recently opened its Ideas Lab, with the vision of igniting innovation in Cairns.


There are many examples of companies built on Australian research know-how – they are either making or shaping the future.

Indeed, 85 per cent of the world’s solar cell capacity can be traced back to the breakthroughs of UNSW researcher Martin Green.

In Geelong, a company called Carbon Revolution is manufacturing light-weight, carbon fibre wheels based on technology out of Deakin University. 

It’s now supplying high-performance wheels to Ferrari, Ford and Renault.

Another example is the Pain-Chek app that uses facial recognition technology to more accurately assess the level of pain felt by people suffering from dementia.

The app is based on technology developed at Curtin University and it’s being used to better manage the pain of residents in over 800 aged care facilities, globally.

And close to my own university, UQ, the Brisbane-based firm Tritium has established itself as a global leader in electric vehicle recharging technology.

It’s a great success story, grounded in innovation, that grew out of a chance encounter between three like-minded UQ students competing in the World Solar Car Challenge.

Tritium now employs over 300 people in Brisbane, has a significant base in Amsterdam, and accounts for over 20 per cent of the European market in EV chargers.

But we can’t build a better future on chance encounters. 

Instead, we need to keep building an innovation culture and ecosystem – that helps us identify and incubate the next Carbon Revolution, the next Pain-Chek app or the next Tritium.

Or, even, the next CSL.


Thankfully, there appears to be a groundswell of activity, right now – across governments, universities and industry – committed to seizing this opportunity.

But we need more than good intentions.

What we need is new levels of collaboration.

The Government recognises this. 

They’ve identified it as a priority that will help drive the economic recovery from the pandemic.

Last October, the Government made the centrality of research to our future absolutely clear with a $1 billion dollar injection to help protect and support the world-leading research capabilities sitting in our universities. 

Around the same time, on this stage, the Prime Minister launched the Government’s Modern Manufacturing Strategy.
That was an important, timely speech.

In his speech, the PM talked about the lessons from Singapore, Canada and Germany – nations that have succeeded in advanced manufacturing by playing to their strengths.

As the PM put it:

“A lesson is don’t try to do everything. It’s all about alignment, across different levels of government, with industry and with the research and education sectors.”

It’s the same point that former Chief Scientist Ian Chubb was making when he said: “It takes three to tango”.

Industry needs to be less risk averse – and embrace the potential of R&D, at scale. 

Governments need the right policy settings, incentives and messaging to foster entrepreneurship and innovation.

And universities need to engage meaningfully with the real-world, and push at the boundaries of disciplinary knowledge. 

As Minister Tudge said, and I quote:

“We want and need our universities to play a bigger role. To not just produce brilliant pure research, but to work more with businesses and governments to translate this research into breakthrough products, new businesses and ideas to grow our economy and strengthen our society.”

On behalf of the nation’s universities, my response is: “Hear, Hear”.

We agree with the Minister that our university researchers must be at “the beating heart” of Australia’s economic comeback.

By working in closer partnership with Government and industry, we want to play a greater role in lifting productivity, boosting the diversification of our economy, and creating new jobs.

But it’s critically important to our future prosperity that we continue to support our basic research.

That early-phase discovery science involves backing our researchers to follow their ideas, wherever they lead.

If we don’t support basic research, there will be nothing to translate or commercialise.

And we won’t be in a position to drive our future.


With that in mind, we welcome the consultation paper released recently by the government’s Research Commercialisation Taskforce.

And I want to commend Jeff Connolly, CEO of Siemens, for so ably leading that taskforce.

Our universities will be bold and ambitious in their responses.

We will seek out new ways of engaging and collaborating. 

We will look to make the cultural changes within our institutions to further support and incentivise research translation. 

We will assess the effectiveness of the different models of technology transfer in use across our institutions – and we’ll seek to optimise how we apply them.

We will offer advice on what has worked overseas – from innovation voucher schemes, to knowledge transfer schemes.

And we will apply the expertise of our researchers to respond to the challenges faced by government and industry.

After all, now is the perfect time to consider bold, priority-driven initiatives, with the scale of the UK’s Grand Challenges and Catapult programs, or the ambition of Japan’s Moonshot program.


My focus today has been on the role our universities will play in shaping the future through education, research and innovation.

An important component of that is addressing our social challenges.

So we remain committed to truth-telling and taking action to improve the lives of individuals, families and whole communities.

We will keep working to close the educational gaps in our regional communities, in our outer suburbs and in our Indigenous communities.

During NAIDOC Week last year, Universities Australia partnered with the National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Higher Education Consortium.

Together, we launched a new campaign called Indigenous OpportUNIty.  

Its goal is simple. 

To inspire more Indigenous students into higher education.  

To change the lives of individuals, and to impact on their families and their communities.

To close the gap between Indigenous and non-Indigenous education in Australia.

More than 20,000 Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people are now studying at university – a doubling of participation over the past decade. 

That’s encouraging, but we need to do more.  

And through our sector-wide Indigenous strategy, now in its fifth year, we will achieve more. 


We also recognise that we must do more to achieve gender equality and combat violence against women.

We want our campuses to always be places of respect, inclusion, fairness and equality. 

For this reason, Universities Australia is launching a new program later today called Educating for Equality – which is a guide for promoting gender equality and respect across our campuses.

I’d like to thank our partners – Our Watch and the Victorian Government – for their support as we’ve developed this important culture-shaping initiative.

As a sector, we stand united in our commitment to prevent gender-based violence across our campuses – through our education, through our transparent reporting and through our leadership.


In conclusion, let me return to Menzies.

Sir Robert – who started out as a boy from regional Victoria before he became our longest-serving PM – was a product of our university system.

He believed that a strong university sector was critical to a robust civil society.

Not standing aloof, but working to strengthen and enrich our society.

His ambition was warranted, and 65 years later our universities sector is a cornerstone of a great and confident nation.  

If anything, COVID-19 has proven just how right Sir Robert was. 

By amplifying scientific facts and truth, our universities acted in the national interest and helped keep Australia safe from the worst of the pandemic.
That’s why I feel honoured to lead an Australian university.  

Universities are places of great inspiration and of great industry.  

They are places where the ideals of freedom of thought and speech are put into practice.

They are places where understanding, ideas and perspectives are shaped – and re-shaped – by facts, evidence, debate and deep reflection.

Through this process, new discoveries are made and new truths are told.

It is this “free search for truth” that helps us to understand the past; make sense of the present; and navigate the future.

In truth, our universities are key partners in the most ambitious enterprise ever undertaken in Australia.

It is the building of a prosperous, fair, equitable, innovative and successful nation. 

And it is our privilege to participate in this ongoing endeavour.

Thank you.