June 2021

As I write, the snap ‘circuit breaker’ lockdown that began last Friday has been extended to support management of the COVID outbreak in Melbourne. I hope you and your loved ones have managed to stay safe and keep your spirits up over the first week of the lockdown.

We have seen two budgets – one Federal and one State – in the last month. Unlike last year, the Federal budget contained no specific assistance for the University sector and made it clear that international borders are not expected to reopen for another 12 months. This will place enormous pressure on University finances and sharpens the importance of finding a way to bring international students safely back into the country. To date, the Federal Government has yet to approve any of the plans proposed by State Governments for their safe return.

The State budget included the announcement of just over $100m for the ‘Home of the Matildas’ on our Bundoora campus (on which more below). This is very exciting news and vindicates our decision some years ago to make a major investment in the rejuvenation of our Sports Park. This will become a major sports facility for elite and community sport in Melbourne’s north – which has been part of our vision all along. It continues the State Government’s exemplary record of providing much-needed support for Victoria’s universities during COVID.

In the meantime, we are back to the unwelcome familiarity of lockdown. We may have to deal with more of these until a significant proportion of the Australian population is vaccinated and issues with quarantine arrangements are fully resolved.

I know that many students and staff are keen to get back to a full-time, on-campus experience, but the events of the last week have shown that we need to continue to deliver teaching and other activity remotely when needed.

Although the last 15 months have been challenging, the disruption we’ve faced has helped to accelerate our work on programs like StudyFlex and compelled us to improve our online offerings. This has enabled us to support our students to continue with their studies during successive lockdowns and will help us to attract more students in the future who want to study with us online.

We have demonstrated that we can do this well. For example, La Trobe currently has 22 per cent of the highest performing online subjects with Open Universities Australia, and our student satisfaction rate with OUA has increased over the past four years to over 85 per cent. This is a great tribute to the team who work on our OUA courses in Food and Nutrition and illustrates that we have the capacity to provide an excellent experience for our online students.

So, while it’s been a difficult time, we have many achievements to celebrate and good reason to be positive about the future. In this month’s blog, I’d like to share some of our recent successes.

Bendigo library

I was delighted to be at the opening of the new Bendigo campus library with the Chancellor on 14 May. The Library is a brilliant space that includes the latest Augmented Reality and Virtual Reality teaching labs, artwork by local Indigenous artist Kane Nelson depicting the lands on which each of our campuses are located, and a 460 square metre events space for University social and cultural activities and use by the local community. The design concept uses the idea of libraries as a ‘third space’ that can serve as a community gathering point and a collaborative learning space between home and work. It’s a very impressive building and I wasn’t surprised to see the Library shortlisted in the Public Design category of the 2021 Australia Interior Design Awards.

Medical research funding

Congratulations to the four researchers who are leading life-changing projects that received almost $6m in funding under the prestigious Medical Research Future Fund (MRFF). It was telling that three of the projects are led by researchers based in the La Trobe University School of Cancer Medicine in the Olivia Newton-John Cancer Research Institute. We’ve developed a formidable research partnership with the Institute that is helping us to better understand the spread of cancer cells within the body and develop new cancer therapies.

Matilda dreaming

It was a thrill to meet a couple of the best footballers in the country – and some very enthusiastic youngsters – when we hosted Acting Premier James Merlino at the Melbourne campus last month for the announcement of a $101.1 million State Government investment in new state-of-the-art facilities at the La Trobe Sports Park. We can now confidently say that La Trobe is one of the key sites for women’s sport in Australia, and I’m sure the La Trobe community will get behind the Matildas when Australia hosts the FIFA Women’s World Cup in 2023. With the Sports Park to be the Victorian base for Football Federation Australia’s national women’s programs, home to the State Centre for Football Victoria and the State Centre for Rugby Victoria, and a base for the Melbourne Rebels’ Super W team programs, our researchers will have the opportunity to work with some of the country’s top athletes and their coaches on player development, injury prevention and high-performance training. Importantly, our students will be able to do placements across a range of sport, business, and health disciplines.

Elia Shugg profile

I wrote about the inaugural Dennis McDermott Research Scholar, Elia Shugg, in my April blog. It was great to see a terrific profile on Elia by the MyLaTrobe team and have the chance to understand more about the aims of his PhD research. Please do read the profile and learn more about Elia’s work.

Fulbright scholars

Well done to Prasanna Sritharan, a postdoctoral researcher in the La Trobe Sport and Exercise Medical Research Centre led by Kay Crossley, who has been awarded a 2021 Fulbright Scholarship. Prasanna works in biomechanics and musculoskeletal modelling and has received a Fulbright scholarship funded by The Kinghorn Foundation. Two La Trobe alumni have also been awarded 2021 Fulbright Scholarships: Bridi Rice has received a Fulbright Professional Scholarship in Non-Profit Leadership and Adelle Sefton-Rowston has been awarded a Fulbright Northern Territory Scholarship.

Teacher education

It was gratifying to receive funding in the recent State Budget for an additional cohort under La Trobe’s Nexus teacher education program that aims to recruit, prepare, graduate and assist in the employment of teachers in low socioeconomic schools. Congratulations to Joanna Barbousas and colleagues in the School of Education – they do some very important work in preparing the next generation of teachers, especially in regional areas across the State. Joanna is also playing an important role in national debates about Initial Teacher Education in her role as President of the Victorian Council of Deans of Education.

Upcoming events

The importance of fast-tracking Australia’s COVID vaccine roll-out is becoming more evident by the day. I encourage everyone to register for the Ideas and Society discussion on 10 June that will bring together some of the most important and expert voices in Australia to talk about the nation’s vaccination program. Deb Gleeson from our Department of Public Health will moderate this essential discussion with former La Trobe University Dean of Health Sciences and Director of the Grattan Institute’s Health Program, Stephen Duckett, the ABC’s Norman Swan, UNSW’s Raina MacIntyre, and international health expert Michael Toole.

There’s another very interesting event the following week, on 15 June, which is presented jointly by La Trobe with Swinburne University of Technology as part of the Technology x Society Forum that is co-convened by Lawrie Zion from ASSC College. The event will talk about Public Interest Technology and the idea that individuals and society should be at the centre of technological choices, with the benefits of technology widely shared. You can register here.

Finally, I hope that you are managing to stay safe and take care of yourselves and your colleagues, friends and family during what continues to be a difficult time. Do consider taking part in the evidence-based ‘ACT on Purpose’ workplace wellbeing program run by the Psychology Clinic Team based in the School of Psychology and Public Health. The clinic has been running this free program for five years to help staff pursue wellbeing at work through strengthening skills in being open, aware, and active. The June program will be run on Zoom for colleagues from all campuses and is held from 2-4pm on Tuesday 8, 15, 22 and 29 June.

To conclude this month’s blog, as I said at the beginning, it’s clear that we need to keep being flexible and to have a ‘plan B’ for our activities, especially by providing online options. I know this can be frustrating; but at the same time it means we can make the most of our experience during COVID by developing flexible programs that will provide significant benefit for our students and partners when things get back to ‘normal’.

In the meantime, let’s hope that the current lockdown is successful in addressing the outbreak in Victoria.