Professor Ian Jacobs’ legacy for Academic Excellence at UNSW Sydney

07 Dec 2021
Professor Ian Jacobs’ legacy for Academic Excellence at UNSW Sydney

Since its inception, the 2025 Strategy has sought to promote and deliver excellence in education and research.

Academic excellence attracts the world’s best students and staff to a university - quality research that drives discoveries, excellent teaching and a well-rounded student experience. It is the desire that UNSW’s programs deliver workforce-ready graduates and upskilled workers that become the world-changers of the future.

As someone who was the first in his family to go to university, Professor Jacobs experienced the power of education. Because of the opportunities it opened up for him, he felt a responsibility to use his skills and knowledge to improve lives and has done just that – as a doctor, surgeon, charity founder, ovarian cancer researcher and university leader.

The 2025 Strategy set the vision for UNSW to deliver a transformative educational experience. Three key aspects of the strategy are noteworthy:

  1. A focus on nurturing educators of excellence and the launch of the Education Focused program
  2. An industry connected and employment focused curriculum
  3. The development of a significant digital capability and the provision of a high-quality education technology estate.

“Ian’s vision and aspiration for UNSW gave rise to Strategy 2025. Through the investments we made in education, industry partnerships, and education technology, among many others, we have been able to give our students the education they deserve,” Professor Rorden Wilkinson, Pro Vice-Chancellor, Education & Student Experience said. “They have also helped us continue to deliver educational excellence throughout the pandemic.”

Education Focussed Careers

UNSW’s Education Focussed (EF) program is a university-wide strategic initiative that was established to ensure the university delivers a quality education, to support agile and emergent educational leadership, and develop ongoing generations of educational experts. It encompasses a suite of professional development initiatives to support the teaching practice and careers of EF academics.

The impact of this program can be seen in the overall higher student satisfaction scores of EF academics, their promotion to educational leadership positions throughout the university, and the growth and recognition of the EF community.

Importantly, the EF program has generated culture change at UNSW – one that values education and recognises its importance alongside research, as demonstrated by vibrant, cross-disciplinary EF Communities of Practice.

Industry Focussed

Under S25, UNSW has delivered a curriculum imbued with opportunities that prepare our graduates for the challenges of the 21st century global work force, a key initiative of which has been the scaling of Work Integrated Learning (WIL). This enables students to enhance their employability, apply their knowledge and build professional skills by working directly with our industry, government, and community partners for credit towards their degree or program accreditation. WIL Central was established in 2019 to develop an educational policy, procedure, and strategy to assist faculties in delivering high-quality WIL opportunities.

The success of UNSW’s graduates has been captured in the QILT Graduate Outcome Survey with remarkable results. UNSW undergraduates continue to achieve the highest graduate salaries among the Go8 universities while our postgraduates have the highest graduate salaries in Australia.

Education Technology

The launch of a bold education technology strategy under the Inspired Learning Initiative (ILI) and the digital uplift program laid the foundations for success during the pandemic. The ILI program successfully supported the transition of 354 courses to fully online mode in 2020 alone, impacting 104,663 student enrolments. Staff and students needed to develop new skill sets to successfully transition to and excel in online teaching and learning. Support included education design, professional development, technology innovations, online resources, chatbots, consultation sessions and webinars.

These efforts, and those of all staff and students, resulted in UNSW maintaining a steady level of student satisfaction in the QILT Student Experience Survey (SES), and the highest student satisfaction with teaching and courses UNSW has seen in myExperience survey outcomes (86.6% and 76% respectively).

Building on these successes, efforts are underway to develop and implement a new digital education strategy – including fully online, hybrid, and blended delivery models to simplify and uplift student and staff experiences. These endeavours are forging a future where UNSW students will benefit from a world leading, personalised experience, using seamlessly interconnected physical and digital environments.

Academic Excellence underpins all we do at UNSW Sydney and this reflects our emphasis on what makes the experience of studying here, at any level, challenging, stimulating and engaging.

Quality research that drives discoveries

Professor Jacobs was constantly impressed by the quality of Australian research in general and of UNSW research in particular, believing our research excellence should be celebrated as much as our sporting prowess.  

As a champion of the research community, our Vice-Chancellor built strong relationships with governments and industry, knowing that university researchers will be instrumental in guiding the path to an innovative, high-tech, equitable post-pandemic recovery.

Guided by the 2025 Strategy, UNSW continues to cultivate a rich research ecosystem designed to deliver academic excellence. Our initiatives focus on recruiting and retaining the best research talent from around the world, developing programs that enable researchers to succeed, creating opportunities for interdisciplinary collaboration, building world-class facilities to extend our capabilities, and growing our international reputation through rankings.

Strategic recruitment

A cornerstone of S25 has been the recruitment and retention of top research talent through the flagship Strategic Hires and Retention Pathways (SHARP), Scientia Academic and Scientia PhD Scholarship programs. Researchers are chosen for their exceptional performance and ability to contribute to UNSW’s diversity, social engagement, and global impact agendas.

Scientia PhD scholarships are allocated to research projects aligned to S25 priorities and have proved invaluable in growing research capacity in key areas. Applicants are drawn from Top 100 institutions and, more broadly, from industry to provide a depth of skill and experience.

In the Scientia program, we have 125 academics across six faculties. We are proud of the diversity and achievement within their ranks, including 10 being Indigenous, 51% of the STEM appointments women, and five Scientia academics being Highly Cited Researchers. The impact of their research has been recognised with multiple awards including the Australian Academy of Science Pawsey Medal, Young Tall Poppy Award, and Women in Artificial Intelligence Award.

To date, 39 established leaders in their field have been engaged as SHARP hires, although recruitment is now paused due to COVID-19 budget restraints. The high-performing researchers recruited through these programs help raise UNSW’s profile and, by extension, positively impact future recruitment prospects.

Research collaboration

Solving complex problems requires diverse perspectives and UNSW actively seeks out collaborations that will strengthen research quality.

Formed in 2018, the UNSW Futures InstitutesAgeing, Cellular Genomics, Digital Grid, Materials and Manufacturing – present a framework for addressing humanity’s most pressing challenges through interdisciplinary and cross-faculty research, and collaboration with industry, government, and community stakeholders.

Our new $25M UNSW RNA Institute brings together teams from Science, Engineering and Medicine & Health to make critical contributions to RNA research in the priority areas of COVID-19, cancer, and genetic disorders. The Institute is part of the NSW RNA Production and Research Network (NSW-RPRN), a partnership between five NSW and ACT universities.

In addition, UNSW’s growing number of health partnerships – SPHERE, Mindgardens, Medical Research Institutes – increase not only our expertise, but also the impact of our research and our ability to inspire real change.

World-class research infrastructure

UNSW is committed to expanding research capacity by developing major infrastructure, shared experimental facilities, researcher-focused digital systems and support for data quality and curation. Since the beginning of S25, $175M has been invested in state-of-the-art equipment and programs that enable researchers to work at the cutting edge of their field.

This year, several key initiatives were delivered, including the Aberration Corrected Transmission Electron Microscope Facility, which will support materials research by more than 400 researchers across UNSW and externally; development of the 3T MRI imaging facility, in partnership with Prince of Wales Medical Imaging; and collaborations with National Computational Infrastructure and the Australian Research Data Commons, providing access to leading edge data and computational platforms.

One of the top 50 universities in the world

Four years ahead of schedule, we have reached our ambitious S25 goal of rising to a top 50 global position. UNSW is 50th in the 2021 Aggregate Ranking of Top Universities (ARTU), a system that combines ARWU, QS and THE rankings to create a single aggregate score.

This achievement is the result of long-term strategies aimed at fostering research quality through recruitment of research leaders, key partnerships, a culture of collaboration, cutting edge facilities, and support for researchers to develop and succeed. By no means a comprehensive measure of research quality, rankings allow us to compare our achievements on an international scale and enhance our reputation to attract new research talent, students, partnerships, and funding.