Message from President and Vice-Chancellor Professor Ian Jacobs - 8 June 2021

08 Jun 2021
President and Vice-Chancellor

Dear colleagues

Today’s newsletter is full of positive stories, alongside more sobering reflections about the Universities Australia conference last week. There are sparkling examples of the array of talented people who comprise the UNSW community. They are a celebration of education and research, of dedicated careers and invaluable legacies that exemplify our vision of improving lives around the world. Among the awards, acknowledgements and celebrations in this edition are the people with whom we work every day, our colleagues and friends who are the very embodiment of Scientia corde manu et mente. The newsletter ends with a tribute to the late Emeritus Professor Roger Layton and an invitation to you all to attend the memorial event in celebration of the life of Scientia Professor Kat Gaus, one of UNSW’s most inspirational academics.

Staff forum recording available

Thank you to all who attended the staff forum on Friday. The Senior Leadership Team answered the questions you submitted about a wide range of topics regarding the University’s activities and priorities. If you were unable to attend the forum, or would like to refer to any questions or answers, you can watch the recording online. My thanks to all who submitted questions, to all who were able to log on for the forum, to my Senior Leadership Team colleagues for providing detailed answers and to the team of colleagues who ensured a seamless event.

AWEI Index Gold Employer status

In an encouraging affirmation of our commitment to equity, diversity and inclusion, UNSW recently achieved Gold Employer status in the Australian Workplace Equality Index (AWEI) for the second year in a row. The AWEI is a national benchmark for the inclusion of gender, sex and sexuality diverse (LGBTIQ+) staff in Australian workplaces.

I am grateful to all at UNSW who underpin the observation of outgoing UNSW LGBTIQ+ Champion, Dr Bridget Haire, that, throughout the unique challenges of the pandemic, our University maintained its commitment to providing a safe, fair and supportive environment for LGBTIQ+ staff and students. Thank you to all in our community who uphold this commitment, and who completed the survey that provides evidence towards achieving our AWEI Gold status. This is the fourth consecutive year that UNSW has participated in the index, and our retention of Gold status is a credit to our students, staff, Diversity Champions and the Division of Equity Diversity & Inclusion.

World-class performance in latest subject rankings

UNSW has again made an excellent showing in the latest global subject rankings. In the 2021 Shanghai Global Ranking by Academic Subject (GRAS), our University has more subjects in the top 50 (19) and more subjects ranked first in Australia (12) than any other Australian institution. Two of our subjects are in the global top 10 at eighth place: Mining & Mineral Engineering, and Water Resources. This is the fourth year in a row that UNSW has appeared in 52 of the 54 subjects ranked. It is noteworthy that since GRAS began, the only subjects in which we have not been ranked are two that we don’t offer: Dentistry and Veterinary Science.

Excellent results in the 2021 Nature Index

We have also achieved excellent results in the 2021 Nature Index, ranking at number 76 among the top contributors to global scientific research. This is a gain of 10 places on last year’s ranking and makes us number two among Australian institutions. We are first in Australia for Chemistry and for Physical Sciences, second in Earth & Environment Studies, and fourth in Life Sciences. Furthermore, UNSW is number one in Australia for our author share in the top two journals, Nature and Science.

These admirable results are a well-deserved tribute to our academic staff and testament to our focus on research excellence.

As our University continues to perform well in global rankings, I reemphasise an important point that Professor Nicholas Fisk made at the staff forum on Friday. Our rankings performance is not an end in itself. It is a measure of how well we are delivering our vision: to improve lives globally, through innovative research, transformative education and commitment to a just society. That UNSW performs well in rankings is an external endorsement of the quality of our education and research, and the excellence for which we strive in pursuit of our vision. Rankings are far from perfect and there are many other ways of evaluating our work, but they do provide one way of measuring our progress and impact compared to other universities nationally and around the world. Congratulations to all in our community whose dedication and professionalism contribute to our performance in these global benchmarks.

Congratulations to our 2021 Fulbright Scholars

Ten outstanding academics, PhD candidates and alumni from UNSW have been selected as Fulbright Scholars for 2021. Fulbright Scholarships are offered by the Australian-American Fulbright Commission, enabling Australian Scholars to take part in academic and cultural exchange with the United States, through fully funded study and research programs that seek to have a positive impact on the health, livelihoods and prosperity of Australians. Congratulations to Mr Thomas Boak, Professor Iain Suthers, Professor Diane Fatkin, Ms Marcella Hager, Dr Sara Hungerford, Mr Himmat Panag, Dr Fatemeh Salehi, Dr Clare Stephens, Ms Patricia Sullivan and Ms Diana Zhang.

The Fulbright Program was originally funded in 1949 under the first official treaty between the US and Australia, named after Junior Senator for Arkansas, J. William Fulbright. The treaty facilitated the exchange of postgraduate students, research scholars and lecturers in every academic field, and, in the Senator’s words, would foster “leadership, learning and empathy between cultures”. Best wishes to our 2021 scholars.

Dean’s Award for Outstanding PhD Theses

My congratulations to the 48 UNSW PhD graduates who have been awarded the Dean’s Award for Outstanding PhD Theses. The standard required to receive one of these awards is exacting and reflects excellence across all examination criteria. I echo the sentiment of Professor Jonathan Morris, Pro Vice-Chancellor Research Training & Entrepreneurship and Dean of Graduate Research, who acknowledged the added burden of COVID-19 on these graduates, whose theses were examined in Terms 2 and 3 of 2020, and Summer Term of 2021. Well done, all.

New UNSW Fellows of the Australian Academy of Science

Please join me in congratulating Professor Andrew Pittman and Professor Susan Coppersmith on their election as Fellows of the Australian Academy of Science, for their profound contributions to research in their fields of expertise. Andy is an international authority on the role of land surface processes in the climate system including their influence on regional rainfall and temperature extremes; Susan has made outstanding contributions to several subjects in condensed matter, focusing on the fundamental nature of systems that are far from thermal equilibrium.

Andy and Susan are among 22 distinguished researchers elected by their peers in 2021. Their election reflects the esteem in which they are held in the scientific community and the clear impact of their research. Congratulations to both professors on this high, thoroughly deserved honour.

Environmental Sustainability Report 2020

On top of our proud switch to solar renewable electricity in November, UNSW achieved some important environmental sustainability milestones last year, many of which are highlighted in our Environmental Sustainability Report 2020. Fittingly, the report was released on World Environment Day (5 June), in a tribute to our strong environmental credentials as well as our vision for positive global impact. I encourage you to read what is an inspiring account of our focus on creating a sustainable future.

Thank you to all who have helped us achieve many of the targets of our Environmental Sustainability Plan 2019–2021. We can be especially grateful to Estate Management for their ambition and strong leadership in this critical area. I wish the team well as they turn their minds to plans for deepening our commitment to sustainability for 2022 and beyond.

Student experience markers on a positive trajectory

I reiterate the positive comments made by Professor Rorden Wilkinson at the staff forum on Friday about the trajectory of our student experience and satisfaction results. Our myExperience results in T1 2021 are testament to your dedication to providing an excellent educational experience for our students. The T1 results show that, for a second term in a row, our students rate their satisfaction with teaching higher than ever before.

The myExperience results for T1 are from more than 55,000 responses for course surveys and 90,000 responses to teaching surveys, captured from undergraduate and postgraduate students across 1250 courses. In a year that has served up complex challenges for our students and our staff, these results, and the high engagement of students and staff in completing myExperience, are very encouraging. Thank you for your continuing efforts to provide an excellent education and educational experience for our students.

Universities Australia conference 2021

I note some of the ideas raised at the Universities Australia conference last week, at which the federal Minister for Education, Alan Tudge, and the federal Shadow Minister for Education, Tanya Plibersek, were guest speakers. It was pleasing to hear support for the sector from the Shadow Minister and to hear Minister Tudge speak so enthusiastically about the commercialisation of university research. I know we are all keen to hear the outcome of the consultation process, which Mr Tudge said attracted 170 submissions about how universities and industry can work more closely to get great ideas to market.

While I won’t dissect the speeches, I do want to address some ideas that keep bubbling up and send mixed messages about the sacrifices and massive effort you have made during the COVID-19 pandemic. There can be no doubt that our staff have worked in an exemplary way to ensure that our University continues to provide high quality education and research, even as you had to adapt in just weeks, last year, to an entirely different operating model in the most challenging of circumstances. That our students – both on campus and overseas – were central in the decisions and provisions we made is indisputable. We now have more than 70% of teaching activity available on campus and expect to be higher still in Term 3. That does not mean that all students want to return to the pre-pandemic teaching model. They now have much greater flexibility and many are making an informed, positive choice to use remote, digital options because of the high quality resources you have made available.

Thus, I emphatically reject any suggestion that UNSW or other Australian universities do not – or did not – prioritise our students, both domestic and international. Preparing Australian students for the myriad challenges they will face in the workplace and in society, generally, is a core and key priority for us. There are certainly improvements to be made in student experience but our T1 myExperience results, as outlined in the previous section of this message, are on a strong positive trajectory across the board – international and domestic, undergraduate and postgraduate. This is an effort that I know you all support, and as Professor Rorden Wilkinson emphasised at the staff forum, we will not rest on our laurels but will build on these positive results achieved in the most challenging of times.

There also appears to be an effort to paint universities as ‘crying wolf’ over financial losses, based upon the fact that many universities posted surpluses or small deficits for the 2020 financial year. That interpretation ignores the very large, sudden reduction in income that our universities had to manage – for UNSW it was over $200m in 2020. The reason UNSW and other universities managed to balance their budgets in 2020 was because of rapid and astute financial management. At UNSW we activated contingency plans that have long been in place for dealing with a financial shock, just as any responsible organisation should in a crisis. We quickly cut expenditure to match the reduction in income and safeguard the financial stability of the University. Last year we also acted proactively to reduce expenditure in proportion to the expected reduction in income for 2021 and 2022, through both non-pay savings and painful but essential staff reductions. We did so as one of the few industries in Australia not to receive government support through the JobKeeper scheme.

There are challenges in predicting the financial outlook given the pandemic and geopolitical factors. The leadership team and UNSW Finance Committee are planning our finances on the basis that our income will gradually return to 2019 levels by 2023–2024. Not surprisingly the financial constraints are being felt by all our staff as you work so hard to maintain the quality of our research, teaching, operations and other efforts. The reward for your sustained high-quality work is threefold. Firstly, that we have stability this year and there are no plans for additional changes in finances or workforce. Secondly, that UNSW is well placed to maintain our strong trajectory as we emerge from the pandemic. Thirdly, that we can now start planning additional spend in our priority areas.

More generally, the efforts by some to criticise – or penalise – our universities on topics as diverse as freedom of speech, foreign interference, educational quality, research focus, and (sound) financial management are misplaced. The higher education sector is one of Australia’s greatest assets. We are not perfect and we constantly strive to improve, but our universities have played a key role in the response to the Covid pandemic and we can be an important partner in the recovery. My fervent hope is that government will take this opportunity to work constructively with our sector to realise the immense potential we offer Australian society for educational opportunity, research innovation, economic benefit and social justice.

Multiversity launches scholarships and course offerings

In the context of the great potential for Australian universities to contribute to our nation through education, research and collaboration, I am delighted that the Multiversity is being launched today with the announcement of Aerotropolis-focused STEM course offerings and the Multiversity Industry Scholarship Fund.

The Multiversity is a unique partnership between the four universities of the NUW Alliance – the University of Newcastle, UNSW, the University of Wollongong and Western Sydney University – and TAFE NSW. The strength of this partnership and the collaboration with industry to develop the Multiversity program have produced an educational approach with great potential: bringing together disciplinary and knowledge-based education with industry-relevant skills at all Australian Quality Framework levels. The Multiversity will provide training for the jobs of the future, and the capabilities Australia needs for an internationally competitive advanced manufacturing industry. You can find out more at

My congratulations to all who have brought the Multiversity to this stage. I look forward to sharing more news as the project progresses.

UNSW Annual Report 2020

I invite you to browse the UNSW Annual Report 2020, which was published recently. Together, we achieved much in a momentous year and the report provides a comprehensive account of 2020 which you can read here. Thank you to the team who had the Herculean task of compiling the report.

COVID-19 safety

The recent cases of COVID-19 in Victoria remind us that we must continue to take care to minimise the risk of infection and keep our community safe. Please ensure that, wherever you are on campus or in the wider community, you comply with COVID-safe regulations including wearing of masks when required, physical distancing, and using QR codes to check into buildings and other locations. Continue to refer to our Safe Return to Campus Guidance and check the NSW government website for the latest COVID-19 updates and alerts.

Vale Emeritus Professor Roger Layton

I was sad to hear of the passing of Emeritus Professor Roger Layton AM last weekend. Roger was part of the fabric of UNSW and a major figure in the fledgling discipline of marketing in Australia and internationally. Roger joined our University in 1958 and, when he was appointed Professor of Marketing in 1967, he was Australia’s first. From 1992–2002, Roger was Dean of what was then our Faculty of Commerce and Economics. Throughout his stellar career, he was much awarded and much admired. In 1998 his service to marketing, research and teaching was recognised with his admission as a Member of the Order of Australia. Roger was a willing mentor and a generous benefactor: he recently established the Layton Emerging composer fellowship in conjunction with the Australia Ensemble UNSW.

Roger leaves an impressive and valuable legacy and he will be sadly missed. I offer my sympathy to Roger’s family, friends and admirers.

Kat Gaus memorial – Thursday 17 June

I finish my newsletter today with a reminder about the memorial for Scientia Professor Kat Gaus, which will be held on Thursday 17 June at 2.30pm in Leighton Hall. You are invited to join this celebration of Kat, her outstanding achievements and her enduring legacy. I will join Kat’s colleagues and friends including Scientia Professor Justin Gooding, Kat’s husband, Professor Emma Johnston, Professor Vlado Perkovic, Associate Professor Till Boecking and Professor James Whisstock from Monash University, in speaking about Kat’s remarkable life, and her great contribution to UNSW and to science. Light refreshments will follow and a memorial book will be available to sign.

Please register online. RSVP Thursday 10 June. As spaces are limited within Leighton Hall, the memorial will be streamed live for those who are unable to attend in person.

Best wishes