April 2020

No-one expected this.

In January, which seems like a lifetime ago, we were concerned about bushfires and the impact of climate change. Scott Morrison looked like a fatally flawed leader whose long-term tenure in the job was in question.

How the world has changed – again. In the beginning, the virus posed the threat that our Chinese students would not be able to come to Australia, and our response was tailored accordingly. Then it became clear that the virus, borne largely by travellers arriving by air or sea, was entering Australia. The initial phase of selectively closed borders, testing, isolation and contact tracing was quickly overtaken by widespread controls on freedom of movement and social activities. People have lost jobs, business are on the brink of collapse and life as we know it has basically ground to a halt. And Scott Morrison, who (as one commentator put it) is ‘channelling his inner Bob Hawke’, has seen his approval ratings soar. The world feels turned upside down – again.

Through this, we have tried to anticipate events as best we can and set our course accordingly. We were the first university in the state to ‘pause’ our teaching activities in order to support staff to migrate their teaching online; and we established a Student Crisis Fund to assist our students who are most affected – to which the University has so far contributed almost $2m, and to which our donor community has already stumped up an amazing $400k. We have delayed our census date, refunded Student Amenities Fees and assured students that fail grades will not be shown on their transcript.

Our priority has been to ensure that we continue to educate students so that they can progress or graduate at the end of the year; and that we graduate the young professionals that our community needs so badly.

The migration online of teaching and of student support services has been a magnificent effort by all our staff. I think we have all learned a great deal about ourselves, each other and about new ways of working. While the result is not always perfect, I have heard many students commend the work that our staff have done – and have compared our response very favourably to other universities.

So, I take this opportunity to thank all our staff most warmly for the extraordinary work you have done to get us this far. The connectedness, innovation and care you have demonstrated in the last few weeks has been exemplary. This is particularly so given that many of you will have family members who have lost employment, and some of you will have assumed unexpected childcare (and perhaps home education) responsibilities (on which see more below). Again, thank you.

Looking ahead, the wider impact of COVID-19 remains uncertain. It is certain, however, that like every university, our revenue will be significantly affected for this year, and most likely beyond; and we will need to take steps to preserve the University’s long term viability. The Senior Executive Group has already taken a voluntary pay cut – but we will all have to share a bit of the pain if we are to survive this intact. We are currently investigating options for staff who have requested to support the University, and I will be able to announce further details on how this voluntary response will work next week.

And it’s important that we do survive. Universities will be integral to the nation’s recovery, both literally in terms of things like our health workforce education programs and research to develop a vaccine and therapies for COVID-19, but also through our role as employers, in stimulating economic activity and producing graduates, and doing R&D. In short, we will be vital to Australia’s economic recovery.

La Trobe will have an important role to play in the long-term response. We have researchers whose work can contribute directly to COVID-19 responses including helping with the development and delivery of therapeutic treatments. Sue Dodds and the College Provosts are investigating ways that this important work can be undertaken safely.

This month’s blog summarises some of our recent achievements and ways that our current activity can help in the recovery effort.

Gender equity

COVID-19 will have a disproportionate impact on women. Not only do women make up the majority of front-line health workers, the virus is likely to exacerbate existing gender inequities in our society evident in wage disparities, time spent in informal carer roles, and incidents of domestic violence. If you are experiencing violence or have any concerns about your family situation, please call 1800 RESPECT, Lifeline 131114 or Men’s Referral Service 1300 766 491. Always call 000 if you are in immediate danger.

The University’s leadership role in addressing gender equity is more important than ever. I’m really pleased that La Trobe has been awarded a Workplace Gender Equality Agency (WGEA) Employer of Choice for Gender Equality citation for a fourth consecutive year. As one of only 119 Australian organisations to be awarded a citation this year, we can be proud of our work to improve gender equity through initiatives like the introduction of more flexible working practices, recruitment to address gender disparities in senior leadership positions, and work to close gender remuneration gaps.

I’m also delighted that we can provide tangible support for women at La Trobe. I’d like to congratulate this year’s Tracey Banivanua Mar Fellows, the third cohort to be awarded the Fellowship that we named for a much-loved member of the Department of Archaeology and History who died in 2017. These Fellowships are one of the principal actions in the University’s SAGE Athena SWAN Action Plan and support future research leaders who also have major care-giving responsibilities. Congratulations to the 2020 Tracey Banivanua Mar Fellows: Dr Kerry Fanson, Dr Jillian Garvey and Dr Sianan Healy.

Carer’s leave

As an extra support for staff with children at school, from the commencement of term 2 schooling (expected to be 14 or 15 April, depending on the school), staff will be able to access their carer’s leave up to Friday 24 April. We hope this will help staff to support their children in the transition to online schooling in circumstances where their children need direct supervision. More details are available in the FAQs [internal link]. Staff should talk with their manager about work options for the remainder of term 2 and, if needed, term 3.

Rural recovery

Looking ahead to a time when the crisis period has passed and we start focussing on the rebuilding effort, La Trobe will have a big role to play in the regional communities that we serve.

I’m delighted that we appointed Cathy McGowan AO as a VC’s Fellow in March, because Cathy is exactly the sort of person who can bring the leadership needed to help with regional community building. Cathy first came to national attention in 2013 when, as an Independent, she won the seat of Indi in North Eastern Victoria. Cathy will provide valuable insight into the issues facing higher education in rural and regional areas and advise us on how to increase participation in higher education, particularly in the North East of Victoria. Read more about Cathy and her role as a VC Fellow.

In March we also launched a new GOTAFE/La Trobe University campus in Wallan that will help to address a number of challenges in the fast-growing region on Melbourne’s northern fringe, including low year 12 retention rates and substantial projected employment growth in fields including education, health, community services and aged care. The Wallan campus initiative builds on La Trobe’s very successful partnership with GOTAFE in Shepparton. Programs at Wallan include Community Services, Cybersecurity, Accounting and Bookkeeping, Engineering, Building and Construction, and Early Childhood Education and Care. We’ll work with GOTAFE to support pathways for students to La Trobe courses, which will be important to build capacity in local communities after COVID-19.

In Bendigo, our Professor of Practice in Engineering, Chris Stoltz, is coordinating a local initiative for business, local government, manufacturing and La Trobe experts to work together on projects that will help the community be equipped to respond to the COVID-19 pandemic. Chris is helping the Bendigo community come together to investigate options including reconfiguring manufacturing plants to make much-needed equipment for hospitals, and making ventilators from licenced designs in Bendigo. Thanks to Chris for leading this fantastic response in Bendigo.

Leading research

Meanwhile, we’re also continuing to do some of the best research in the world. Congratulations to Andy Herries who led an international team including eight La Trobe PhD students that unearthed the earliest known skull of Homo erectus, the first of our ancestors to be similar to modern humans in their anatomy and aspects of their behaviour.

Well done to La Trobe doctoral students Jesse Martin who reconstructed the cranium and Angeline Leece who analysed the human fossils, and were both also co-authors of the paper the team published in Science, one of the most prestigious journals in the world. The project has generated a huge amount of media coverage, including on the BBC and CNN and in National Geographic, The Guardian and the New York Times. It was even trending on Twitter!

Student support

Finally, it’s been incredible to see everyone get behind the Student Crisis Fund designed by Jess Vanderlelie and her team, which has helped us to very quickly get urgent support to the students in our community who need it most. The Fund has been supported through an incredible response by alumni, staff and donors, who have donated over $400,000 of our $550,000 goal in only one week, with the University matching every dollar raised.

It was an amazing effort by Stephen May and the Alumni and Advancement team to get the program up and running so quickly, and equally amazing to see the generosity of our community in supporting the appeal.

The La Trobe Rural Health School has also redirected $150,000 from its Rural Health Multidisciplinary Training program grant to support students in crisis, on top of the support they are already offering for childcare and travel for regional and rural students.

The impact of COVID-19 on some of our students has been heartbreaking and it’s wonderful that we’ve been able to able to award almost $1.9 million to students in need through the Student Crisis Fund. We’ve awarded over 500 bursaries including support for regional and international students, distributed 170 laptops, and helped with 20 accommodation rent relief bursaries. What a great example of La Trobe’s unique culture and values.

I wish you all a great Easter break. It will be an unusual Easter this year as we all obey the advice to stay at home, however I hope you are still able to relax and enjoy connecting with your friends and extended family by virtual means, even though we can't gather together in person at present.