February 2023

9 February 2023

Welcome to my first blog for the year. I hope you had a great break over summer and enjoyed the chance to spend time with friends and family, read a good book, or indulge in your favourite pastime.

We have many reasons to be optimistic about the year ahead. We are in a solid financial position, and our new operating model and structures are bedding down and producing some notable improvements. I’m confident that the changes we have made over the last couple of years will set the University in good stead for the future.

We have a lot to do this year, and I’m looking forward to working with our Senior Executive Group in 2023. With Mel Bish joining the group as our new PVC Regional, I’m proud to say more than 50 per cent of our Senior Executive Group are women.

We’re beginning to see the fruits of our work over the last few years to streamline our degree offerings, focus on our research strengths, and invest in our systems. VTAC offers are up 18 per cent. Direct applications are up 20 per cent. International applications are up 149 per cent – and we are on track to significantly exceed our international enrolment targets for Semester 1. These are fantastic results, but the last few years have shown us that things can change very quickly. China’s Ministry of Education has announced that it will no longer recognise foreign degrees obtained through online study and requires Chinese students to return to face-to-face learning. The impact of this on our Semester 1 load remains to be seen, but we’ll be doing everything we can to facilitate the return of as many students as possible in time for the start of semester.

Advances in Artificial Intelligence have also arrived. The ChatGPT chatbot developed by American research lab OpenAI was launched in November last year and has fast become a topic of debate. There are concerns that these kinds of tools will enable widespread cheating in schools and universities, or even make entire professions redundant. While there are practical and ethical issues to consider, whether we like it or not, we need to adapt to generative AI. This technology also has the potential to support learning and research and improve the way we work. For example, La Trobe PhD student Abraham Albert Bonela, Emmanuel Kuntsche from the Centre for Alcohol Policy Research, and Zhen He from the Department of Computer Science and IT recently developed an audio-based deep learning algorithm that can determine intoxication based on a 12-second speech recording. As with any new technology, we need to balance benefits and risks. TEQSA is delivering some modules to support the sector, and Nicki Lee and others will be leading work to consider implications for learning, teaching, and assessment at La Trobe.

As you can see, it’s been a busy year already – a trend we can expect to continue, both inside and outside the University. One of the important national projects happening this year is development of the Australian Universities Accord. The Accord is the first major appraisal of Australia’s higher education system since the Bradley Review in 2008, which led to the establishment of the demand-driven system. Education Minister Jason Clare says it will be “an opportunity to look at everything from funding and access to affordability, transparency, regulation, employment conditions, and how higher education and vocational education and training can and should work together.” I’ve already taken part in some of the consultations led by Mary O’Kane’s review panel about its terms of reference. La Trobe will be participating in further consultations throughout the year as well as contributing ideas in our submissions to help shape the settings for our sector in the years ahead.

In the meantime, I’d like to share a few recent achievements at the University.

Healthy progress

It was pleasing to see the University enter into a new agreement with private hospital operator Healthscope in December 2022, especially because it will improve access to much-needed clinical education placements for students in a range of disciplines. The hospital is a key component of the planned Health and Wellbeing Hub as part of the University City of the Future.

Our health researchers also received a boost in December, with six La Trobe research teams sharing in a total of $5.48 million from the NHMRC Ideas Grant program. Well done to Garrie Valavan Arumugam, Grant Drummond, Stephanie Gras, Michael Buchert, John Mariadason, Yang Liao and their teams. You can read more about their projects here.

Distinguished honours

Heartfelt congratulations to Robert Manne, our Emeritus Professor of Politics and Vice-Chancellor’s Fellow, on his richly-deserved Order of Australia award. Rob was appointed as a lecturer at La Trobe in 1975 and since then has been a key figure at the University and in Australian public life. He is a person of great integrity, humility and generosity, and an inspiration to all of us working in academia who aspire to apply our research and expertise to inform public discussion and debate, and contribute to solving our society’s greatest social and moral challenges.

I was also delighted to see three other eminent La Trobe emeriti recognised for their work and contributions to the nation. Well done to Judith Brett, Jill Cook, and Stephen Duckett who are all national leaders in their respective fields.

You can see the full list of La Trobe staff, alumni, and former staff that received awards in the Order of Australia here.

Pressing on

The La Trobe University Press (LTUP) has published a new edition of The Geoff Raby Collection of Contemporary Chinese Art to coincide with the exhibition In our time: Four decades of art from China and beyond – the Geoff Raby Collection at the Bendigo Art Gallery, which is co-presented by the La Trobe Art Institute. The exhibition shows 70 works from the collection donated to the University in 2019 by our Distinguished Alumnus Dr Geoff Raby AO. The exhibition closes on 19 February and I encourage you to visit in the final weeks.

Since its launch in 2017, LTUP has earnt a reputation for publishing works of originality and substance. The editorial committee has also shown a knack for commissioning books that have anticipated current issues, including a number of books on national security and Australia’s engagement with Asia, Ross Garnaut’s books on the opportunities of renewable energy, and Toby Walsh’s books on AI.

The Press is also publishing a number of books that contribute to Australia’s reckoning with its colonial past. Last year saw the release of Russell Marks’ Black Lives, White Law: Locked Up and Locked Out in Australia. The next two titles also address our settlement history.

Statements from the Soul: The Moral Case for the Uluru Statement from the Heart, which is published on 20 February, is a timely collection of essays from religious leaders arguing for a First Nations Voice to be enshrined in the Australian Constitution. It includes contributions from Buddhist, Christian, Hindu, Jewish, Muslim, and Sikh communities.

Kate Auty’s O’Leary of the Underworld: The Untold Story of the Forrest River Massacre, published on 21 February, sheds light on a frontier massacre that took place at Forrest River in the Kimberley in 1926 and the conspiracy of silence that followed. The book is being launched on 28 February at the Borchardt Library on the Melbourne campus. Professor of Public Engagement Clare Wright will MC a discussion with Kate Auty and Lynette Russell from Monash University’s Indigenous Studies Centre, with our PVC Indigenous Michael Donovan providing a welcome on the day. You can register here.

In closing

I hope you are excited about the coming year at La Trobe. I know many staff are hard at work preparing for Orientation later this month. It will be terrific to welcome a new group of students in 2023 and give them the opportunity to experience campus life to the full.

I hope to see many of you on campus in the coming weeks.