December 2015

Hello and welcome to the final instalment for the year – and what a busy 12 months it has been for everyone here at La Trobe.

It's certainly ended with a bang, with the recent release of 2015 Excellence in Research Australia (ERA) results which show an astonishing improvement in our research performance compared to the last assessment in 2012.

An ERA of success at La Trobe

To give you some idea of the extent of our improvement, we have increased the number of specific research fields assessed at '4' and '5' from 16 in 2012 to 30 in 2015. Looking at it another way, we are clearly amongst the top 10 nationally, and one of the big three in Victoria, when it comes to the number of fields rated at 5 ('well above world standard'), and ahead of some smaller Group of Eight Universities on this measure. We are also amongst the top 10 most improving universities since 2012.

You can read the more detailed results here, but the summary results are below.

  • The best university in Australia for Biological Sciences (equal with ANU)
  • The best university in Australia for Agricultural and Veterinary Studies 
  • The only top-rated university in Australia for Physiology
  • Top rated with only two other universities in Veterinary Sciences, Animal Production, Biochemistry and Cell Biology, and Other Medical and Health Science
  • Top rated with only three other universities in Archaeology, Analytical Chemistry, Crop and Pasture Production, and Microbiology
  • Political Science, Social Work and Banking, Finance and Investment have moved from world standard (3) to above world standard (4).

We should be very proud of this result, which is a resounding success for the University and a strong endorsement of the quality and relevance of our research.

I offer my warmest thanks and congratulations to the many colleagues across the University who worked so hard on our submission.

Innovation statement

You will no doubt have noticed the release earlier this month of the Federal Government's National Innovation and Science Agenda (NISA).

This is a comprehensive package of some 26 different policy initiatives, many of which will affect universities – specifically, changes to the distribution of government funding for research, and changes to the ARC Linkage Grant scheme.

The aim is to encourage and support closer collaboration with industry and 'end users' of research, and to ensure that research outcomes are translated into valuable uses. As a university committed to 'being the difference', this is something at which we excel at La Trobe, so we welcome the government's announcement. We will be announcing some important initiatives next year in this area – watch this space!

2015 Year in Review

As this is the last edition of my monthly blog for the year it seems fitting to reflect on the year that was….

In addition to the outstanding ERA results, 2015 also saw the University regain its place in the Top 400 universities in the world according to both the QS and Times Higher Education rankings; jump 25 positions to number 75 in the Times Higher Education list of the world's Top 100 universities under 50 years of age; and rank amongst the Top 100 universities in the world for Arts and Humanities.

On the research front, there were many achievements in 2015. We established expert research teams in Sports Medicine and Data Analytics, opened the Graduate Research School and were selected as the preferred academic partner for the Centre for Alcohol Policy Research (CAPR).

Our researchers were published in some of the world's most prestigious journals, and worked to make important discoveries that will have a major impact on society, exemplified by the discovery of the molecule that causes cachexia (wasting of the body) in cancer patients by Professor Nick Hoogenraad AO, Dr Amelia Johnston and the team in the Department of Biochemistry and Genetics.

Some of our early career researchers shone on the international stage: Mr John Tsartsaflis and Dr Phillip Bader from the Department of Mathematics and Statistics were selected to attend the Heidelberg Laureate Forum in Germany; Dr Lilit Thwaites from the Department of Languages and Linguistics won the inaugural $5,000 Early Career Translator Prize at the 2015 NSW Premier's Literary Awards; and Dr Jodie McClelland and Mr Alex Schenk won prestigious Victoria Fellowships.

While our performance in 2015's Australian Research Council (ARC) grant rounds was disappointing compared to 2014, we received $6.25 million for eleven projects from the National Health and Medical Research Council (NHMRC), a good performance compared to last year.

Professor Marilyn Anderson, LIMS Professor of Biochemistry and Charles La Trobe Fellow, also shared in a $1m award from the Ramaciotti Foundation to support next-generation research into pharmaceuticals in plants.   2015 has seen many other highlights including a doubling in applications for our Aspire early admissions program; the opening of the $18 million student learning space The Learning Commons; the incredible popularity of Dr Rhiannon Evans' Emperors of Rome podcast, which passed one million downloads; the opening of a national centre of excellence managed by Dr Paul Pigram at our Melbourne Campus, which houses one of the country's best fabrication facilities; the launch of Wominjeka La Trobe, Victoria's first mandatory Indigenous learning program; the strengthening of our partnership with Melbourne City through the establishment of the City Football Group's Australian City Football Academy; our leadership in the national regional higher education policy debate; and the launch of our Bendigo campus master plan.

During 2015 we also launched the University's China Strategy and appointed Professor Chris Mackie as our inaugural Professor of Public Scholarship; and the La Trobe Business School opened the first Yunus Social Business Centre in Australia. We presented a pop up winter elective at the Bendigo Art Gallery, with Exhibiting Culture: Imagining Ned offered as a winter elective subject taught at the Gallery by Dr Sue Gillett; and Professor Jane Farmer organised a group of La Trobe professors, lecturers and PhD students to set up a temporary community campus of the University for a special weekend of learning at Warracknabeal in June.

Dr Andrew Harvey's Access and Achievement Research Unit continued to win an impressive share of national research funding, and devised a methodology for ranking universities that includes measures of equity and diversity as well as narrow research metrics (on which La Trobe ranked equal second nationally). The University was also ranked as one of the most inclusive Australian universities for people of diverse sexual orientation, sex or gender identity, following the release of the first-ever Australian lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex (LGBTI) University Guide in February.

In teaching and learning, we worked to redesign 127 subjects under the Digital Learning Strategy, and funded 26 Innovation Grants. Drs Felicity Blackstock, Brianna Julien and Louise Lexis received prestigious Citations for Outstanding Contributions to Student Learning from the Office for Learning and Teaching.

During 2015 we also sought to place students at the centre of our work by launching a new customer experience improvement program, Student First, and we launched the Regional Reward to boost job prospects and provide international exchange opportunities for our regional students.

We also enhanced our commitment to STEM education through a new partnership with LifeJourney, a US-based online mentoring program. As LifeJourney's foundation Australian university partner, from next year 10,000 students will have access to mentor programs specifically developed for La Trobe.

Our students had some extraordinary success in 2015. PhD student Ms Jody Gerdts, who is studying in the School of Life Sciences at the Bendigo campus, secured funding of $150,000 from the Rural Industries Research and Development Corporation (RIRDC), Horticulture Innovation Australian Limited and the Australian Government to study chalkbrood, a disease that affects honey bees. Mathematics PhD student Mr Murray Neuzerling was joint winner of the prestigious B. H. Neumann prize from the Australian Mathematical Society; and Ms Kate Ryan, who is studying for a PhD in Creative Writing, was the inaugural winner of the $20,000 Melbourne Prize for Literature's 2015 Writers Prize.

Another of our PhD students, Ms Jane Kelley, won the Rural Finance Corporation's Ian Morton Memorial Scholarship, gave an invited talk at the annual meeting of the Australian & New Zealand College of Veterinary Scientists (ANZCVS) Cattle Chapter, and secured a $20,000 grant through the prestigious Federal Government Science and Innovation Award to partly fund her PhD.

Our students also had great success in team pursuits. A team of La Trobe students were first runner-up in the 2015 Telstra University Challenge for their invention of a device that monitors foetal movement (we are the most successful university to compete over the three years of the competition, having won first place in 2013 and Best Technical Development award last year); and three students from the Albury-Wodonga campus won the top prize in Australia's premier social enterprise pitch contest, The Big Idea, the second time in three years that La Trobe has won  the competition. 2015 also saw seven La Trobe students travel to Paris for the 9th UNESCO Global Youth Forum Young Global Citizens for a Sustainable Planet, a trip which was supported through our partnership with the Australian Futures Project.

New colleagues

The improvements in the University's performance are also reflected in the very high calibre people that have chosen to join La Trobe. To name just a few, we have recruited one of the country's most recognised scholars in China Studies, Professor John Makeham from Australian National University.  John will join us in March as our new Director and Chair for the soon to be renamed China Studies Research Centre (formerly the Centre for China Studies). 

Professor Pamela Snow joined us from Monash University to lead the La Trobe Rural Health School; we established our Sports Medicine program under the leadership of Professor Jill Cook from Monash and Professor Kay Crossley from The University of Queensland; Professor Alan Shiell joined us from the University of Calgary as our Professor of Health Economics; Associate Professor Andrew O'Loughlin has come from Deakin to lead our MBA Program; Professor Andrew Bennett came also from Deakin to lead our Ecology program in the School of Life Sciences; and Kelly Smith joined us from UWA as our Pro Vice-Chancellor (International). We also recruited an established Business Analytics group from Deakin University to the La Trobe Business School, leapfrogging our competitors to lead research and teaching on big data and analytics. Professor Damminda Alahakoon, Associate Professor KL Ong and Dr Daswin De Silva joined us in this move.

We have also recruited new staff members to 30 Level B and 29 Level C roles during 2015, positions that deliver teaching and learning activities and undertake research across the University. Overall we have significantly bolstered La Trobe's academic workforce during the year.  A very warm welcome to all these new colleagues. To attract such exceptional researchers and leaders is a real vote of confidence in La Trobe's future. In the new year we'll also be announcing a new Pro Vice-Chancellor (Industry Engagement) as well as some exciting appointments in AgriBio.

Staff Awards

My congratulations again to all the recipients of 2015 La Trobe Staff Awards. We have a great team here at the University and it is important to take time recognise and celebrate the great work of many people in a diverse range of disciplines and services to students and the community.

I would especially like to congratulate Professor Cheryl Dissenayake, who was awarded the inaugural 'Be the Difference' award. Well done Cheryl!

Christmas message

To our students, staff, alumni and all members of the extended La Trobe community, I'd like to take this opportunity to thank you for your support in 2015 and to wish you and your families a happy and safe festive season.

I look forward to seeing you in 2016.