Message from President and Vice-Chancellor Professor Ian Jacobs - 2 March 2020

02 Mar 2020
Ian Jacobs at New College

I had the pleasure of joining some of our students as a ‘student for a day’ last week, starting with a ride in on the light rail, followed by a music class on harmony and a negotiation skills lecture. Although I spend a lot of time speaking to our students, I rarely get a chance to sit in on their learning sessions. This was a very small sample, but I was impressed by the quality of the teaching and the engagement of the students. Many aspects were very similar to my experience as a student quite a few years ago! The greatest difference of course was the use of digital technology in teaching and the fact that almost every student had a mobile, tablet or computer and the vast majority seemed to be multi-tasking. The day left me excited and in awe of the range of outstanding teaching and learning delivered on our campus each day and grateful to our staff for their dedication and excellence. As evidence that I really was there you may be able to identify me in some of the pictures below – I tried to blend in, but age is not forgiving…

My day as a student also gave me another opportunity to discuss UNSW3+ with our students. UNSW3+ is one part of the extensive effort to improve the UNSW student experience in Strategy 2025. The strategy has many other components including new facilities, learning spaces, library upgrades, recreational facilities, education focussed roles and the Scientia Education Academy. The shift to a three-term calendar in 2019 as part of that effort was difficult for many of our students and staff. As a result we will likely follow the pattern at other universities which have been through this type of calendar change and see a sharp initial fall in the 2019 QILT student satisfaction survey when it is released this year. Given that, I was impressed by the understanding of students that I spoke with about the benefits of UNSW3+. They include better use of the campus with 30% fewer timetable clashes and a reduction in the number of early and late lectures. Most importantly some students understood the flexibility that UNSW3+ provides. Students can vary their load to fit in with other activities. They can take just two courses in some terms to accommodate part time work or take three courses a term and free up one term during their degree for overseas experience, work related internships or if they wish to holiday. They also understood that UNSW3+ does not actually increase intensity – if students take three courses over 10 weeks, rather than the previously four in 12 weeks they actually have more time for each subject. So, although I understand the disruption and change that UNSW3+ has required, I am confident that with the refinements that have been made in response to feedback, including the introduction of flexibility week, the benefits will gradually become clear. 

Our aim at UNSW is to graduate our students well equipped for the workplace and a positive role in society. And the evidence that we do so is persuasive. Recently, for example, a record 27 UNSW students were named as Most Employable Students in the Top100 Future Leaders Awards – the highest number of students to be selected from one university since these awards began in 2014. What’s more, the 2019 QILT Employer Satisfaction survey rated UNSW graduates the most employable in the Group of Five universities, at 87%. These are tremendous results for our students and a testament to the quality of the education UNSW staff provide.

Our continuing efforts to improve student satisfaction will be enhanced by the recent appointment of our new Pro Vice-Chancellor, Education and the Student Experience, Professor Rorden Wilkinson. Rorden is committed to UNSW being an exemplar of student experience and I invite you to learn more about our new PVCE in this profile.


Unfortunately, we have had to start the year without large numbers of students from China because of the COVID-19 (coronavirus) outbreak. Given the ongoing travel restrictions from mainland China to Australia, many of the affected students will not be able to begin their studies at UNSW until Term 2. Many staff at UNSW are working hard to provide these students with information about how best to continue their studies and we look forward to welcoming them as soon as they can join us. The flexibility of UNSW 3+ should allow most of them to catch up and complete their degrees on time.

Not surprisingly the impact of COVID-19 dominated discussions at meetings last week of the Group of 8 Board and Universities Australia. It is unclear at present whether the spread of the virus will lead to a global pandemic or it will be possible to contain the spread. At UNSW we are hopeful that the situation will be under control by the start of Term 2 in June, but we also have plans to cope with longer term disruption. Our priority will continue to be ensuring the safety and wellbeing of all students and staff and liaising closely with federal and state government agencies. You can keep up-to-date with current public health advice and UNSW’s response through our COVID-19 FAQs page.

UNSW Scientia PhD candidate wins Pitch It Clever competition

Congratulations to Scientia PhD candidate, Frederic Robinson, who won the top prize in the Universities Australia ‘Pitch It Clever’ research communications challenge. Frederic rose to the occasion, making a compelling two-minute video that describes his research and its potential application. Frederic’s work on using sounds to enrich the interaction between humans and robots in settings like healthcare is a fine example of the power of research to improve our world. Well done, Frederic, for pitching it clever!

2020 Poverty in Australia Overview

Last week the Australian Council of Social Service and UNSW’s Social Policy Research Centre released the 2020 Poverty in Australia Overview. The report is part of our five-year Poverty and Inequality Partnership with ACOSS, which aims to fill the gaps in our knowledge about poverty in Australia. The report includes trends and drivers of poverty in our country and reveals some sobering information, including the fact that more than one in eight of our adults and one in six of our children live below the poverty line. Research like this is crucial for developing informed and effective social policy. It is my hope that UNSW will continue to make a valuable contribution to solving some of the complex social challenges our communities face. I commend Professor Carla Treloar, Director of the SPRC, and Associate Professor Bruce Bradbury, the report’s lead researcher, for this vital work. Of course, the Social Policy Research Centre’s reputation for its leading work on poverty has been built over decades. Much of that can be attributed to the work of Professor Peter Saunders, whom we farewell this week as he embarks on his well-deserved retirement. His career was devoted to the quality research that informed compassionate solutions to the plight of the poor, the aged, the marginalised. He was an advocate for those too often voiceless. Luckily for us, Peter will remain part of our community as an Emeritus Professor but, on behalf of UNSW I thank him for his devotion to this important area of public policy and wish him all the very best.

The Manly Dam Project

I was excited to visit the UNSW Water Research Laboratory (WRL) at Manly Dam. This was a visionary initiative when established in 1959 and it is even more important today providing a unique practical laboratory for studying and modelling complex challenges in water management, control and storage. As water has become central to so many of the conversations about the impact of climate change – drought, floods, coastal erosion for example – the WRL will be even more valuable. To celebrate WRL’s 60th anniversary, its engineers collaborated with eight artists and the Aboriginal Heritage Office to create an exhibition that captured the unique biodiversity, history and cultural significance of the area. After the tour of the lab, I was fortunate to be a guest at Manly Art Gallery and Museum to view the exhibition. This innovative project not only produced stunning pieces of art, but once again proves the rewards of having an open mind about collaborative ventures. I congratulate Professor Ian Turner and his team for both their research achievements and this powerful partnership with the art community.

ARC Research Hub for Integrated Energy Storage Solutions

I was grateful that Federal Education Minister, the Hon. Dan Tehan, found the time to join us in Kensington recently to help launch another powerful collaborative venture, the ARC Research Hub for Integrated Energy Storage Solutions. UNSW is proud to host this hub, a collaboration between researchers at UNSW, UTS and Deakin University and industry partners from around the world. Hub Director, Professor Joe Dong, and his team are working to translate their world-class research into industrial solutions that can feed more renewable sources of energy into existing networks – like the solar thermal reactor hard at work converting carbon dioxide into natural gas atop our Tyree Energy Building. This is an excellent example of universities and industries working together for a sustainable future. Congratulations to all involved in the work of the hub.

Dinner with New College

I had the privilege of attending and speaking at the commencement dinner for New College communities’ residents recently (see the photo at the top of this message). New College is the undergraduate residence and New College Village houses post-graduates. It was a chance to celebrate the end of New College’s 50th anniversary year, marked by the release of a history of the halls. I congratulate New College Master, Adjunct Professor Bill Peirson; Dean of Residents, Mr Jonathan Billingham and all students for maintaining the college’s high academic aspirations and continuing the commitment to social justice, which is a hallmark of New College.

Technology Strategy 2020

Thank you to everyone who participated in the workshops and discussions that informed our new Technology Strategy 2020. The strategy acknowledges the important role technology will play in UNSW achieving our 2025 Strategy priorities, with a total investment of $239 million over five years. Congratulations to CDO, Tim Catley, and his team on achieving this milestone.

International Women’s Day

International Women’s Day, Sunday, 8 March, is approaching. This year’s theme, ‘Each for Equal’, emphasises that each of us, regardless of gender, can contribute to a gender-equal world. Visit the UNSW IWD website to find out how you can be involved in #EachforEqual, including the special event on Friday, 6 March. And in the lead-up to IWD 2020, I encourage you to read Professor Timothy O’Leary’s recent reflection on the ways men can engage in the conversation about gender.

Academic Lead for the Trust Grand Challenge

I am pleased to announce that Dr Katharine Kemp, a senior lecturer with our Faculty of Law, has been appointed the academic lead for our Grand Challenge on Trust. Trust is the sixth of our Grand Challenges, and I share Scientia Professor Rob Brooks’ view that in some ways it is the most fundamental. Katharine will bring experts together from a vast array of disciplines and I know she is also keen to involve students in the challenge. I congratulate Dr Kemp on this appointment and encourage the UNSW community to see how they might contribute to the initiative. The Trust Grand Challenge runs from now until February 2022.

Applications for promotion to Associate Professor are open

Applications are now open for Senior Lecturers and equivalent Academic Research staff seeking promotion to Associate Professor. If you are considering taking this next step in your academic career, I encourage you to speak with your Dean and colleagues who have been through the promotion process. There are a variety of resources online to guide you, as well as an HR information session on 23 March. Applications close on Monday, 18 May 2020.

Our Human Rainbow

Well done to all the students and staff who created our first Human Rainbow to celebrate our LGBTIQ+ community and the Mardi Gras festival. The burst of colour filling University Mall at the Kensington campus was a beautiful tribute to the spirit of inclusion at UNSW. Thank you to all who took part. And to all who celebrated the parade on Saturday night, I hope you had a great time.

Australian citizenship

Finally, I am pleased to share with you that after five years in Australia, my wife Chris, Shahina Mohamed (COO in my office) and myself have become Australian citizens, after attending a citizenship ceremony at Little Bay with more than 100 other new Australians. It was an exciting and moving occasion for us as we took on the privilege of joining this great nation. Matt Thistlethwaite, Federal MP for Kingsford Smith, spoke at the event and made the important point that Australia does not ask new citizens to leave their background, culture and heritage behind, but asks them to bring it with them and add to the richness of life in Australia. Matt’s words described Australia at its best and many of the reasons that Australian citizenship is such a privilege. No nation is perfect and there is much to do here, for example to address the issues highlighted in the 2020 Poverty in Australia report and to address Indigenous rights, but I feel enormous pride in becoming an Australian. I thank you all for your part in making my time here at UNSW, and in Australia, a truly inspiring phase of my personal and professional life.

I also congratulate UNSW Scientia Fellow Natalia Castaño Rodríguez who, in a lovely coincidence, received her citizenship at the same ceremony last week. Natalia was accompanied by her husband and fellow Scientia Fellow, Nadeem Kaakoush. Nadeem became a citizen in 1990 after arriving in Australia as a Palestinian refugee in 1988. Nadeem’s connection to UNSW dates back to 2003; Natalia’s to 2009, the year in which she came to Australia and joined our Helicobacter and Campylobacter Laboratory. It was here that she met Nadeem. Romance blossomed and the couple married in Natalia’s homeland of Colombia in 2015. I thank Natalia and Nadeem for allowing me to tell their story, in celebration of our Scientia Fellowship scheme and the wonderful cultural diversity of the UNSW community.

Best wishes