September 2020

One of the effects of the stage four COVID-19 lockdown in Melbourne, and the stage three restrictions in regional Victoria, is the way they seem to distort the passage of time. There are periods when it slows down to a crawl, and others when the weeks feel like they’ve flown by. It’s a bit like the AFL fixture list this year – a long-delayed season followed by weeks of frantic activity.

It’s hard to believe that most of us have been working remotely for more than five months. We’ve adjusted to new ways of working, some of which may have already become second nature. I don’t know how I managed without Microsoft Teams, which has made it so much easier to work collaboratively with colleagues on documents and shared projects.

As we progress through the University Transformation Project, we will need to turn our attention soon to the way we will work in the future. I’m sure we’ll take some cues from the new practices we’ve adopted in recent months. Questions about our future work patterns have been raised by staff at All Staff webinars; but answering them involves more than just thinking about flexible or location-independent working. We’ll also need to think about the ingredients of location, space, infrastructure, technology, and our HR framework.

There’s no shortage of models out there, including the approach outlined in this short piece on 'Distributed Work’s Five Levels of Autonomy' by Matt Mullenweg, who developed the free open-source software WordPress. Technology companies such as Atlassian make use of this model. Although I’m wary of reductionist thinking that suggests ideas from the private sector can easily be applied in a university, it’s worth learning from other organisations about how they are managing current challenges.

I’m very aware that it continues to be a challenging time for many of us and our families and friends. I hope you made the most of the Wellness Day on 31 August and the activities on offer during the month. If you need any support, please ask your manager or HR business partners how we can help.

Finally, a reminder that Expressions of Interest for a second University-wide VRS round open on 9 September. There’s more information about the program in the FAQs we’ve published on the intranet.


Research highlights

Andrew Harvey and his team in our Centre for Higher Education Equity and Diversity Research (CHEEDR) have been awarded four of the 17 grants on offer in 2020 from the National Centre for Student Equity in Higher Education. This is 23.5 per cent of the national funding pool – a phenomenal achievement. The reason for their success is simple – they have a proven track record of devising and implementing evidence-based programs that improve access and achievement by underrepresented students. Well done to Andrew and the team!

I recently read a fantastic story in the ARC’s Making a Difference publication about the work of the La Trobe University node of the ARC Centre of Excellence for Plant Energy Biology. Led by Jim Whelan, this work promises to reduce fertiliser wastage and save millions of dollars for Australian farmers. Congratulations to the lead researcher in Jim’s team, Ricarda Jost.

The new ‘Rapid Response Research’ grants funded by La Trobe, Medibank and Optus provide another great example of how we can work collaboratively with industry partners to benefit the community. These grants fund projects requiring a rapid turnaround and which can have an immediate impact. It’s pleasing that the first three projects to share in the $250,000 funding will investigate topics that are so relevant in the COVID-19 environment: the mental and physical health impacts of working from home, telehealth physiotherapy rehabilitation for cancer survivors, and virtual care technologies. Read more in our media release.


Enrolments on the up

It’s always a delight to meet students who have come to La Trobe under our flagship Aspire program, so it was great to hear that more than 40 Year 12 students from regional Victoria have already received a conditional offer into their chosen course at La Trobe in 2021 through Aspire. Receiving an early offer to university this year might prove more valuable than ever before – having some certainty about 2021 can take some of the pressure off Year 12s and help them focus on their studies. I look forward to seeing the Aspire class of 2021 on campus next year!

As you may have seen, there’s also been extraordinary demand through the Apply Direct channel for Semester 2 courses at La Trobe, especially the Graduate Certificate in Mental Health. It shows the huge untapped market for programs that can be developed in areas of workforce need or to address industry challenges, particularly to support professional growth and career change for people whose employment has been affected by COVID-19. There’s no reason we can’t follow up the success of the Mental Health program with more short courses, especially since Professor Nicki Lee has announced a new process to create and market non-award courses.


A helping hand

I was really heartened to see that our Mildura Nursing Lecturer Sandy Connor helped to ensure that South Australian nursing students from Flinders University aren’t being disadvantaged by border restrictions put in place to prevent the spread of COVID-19. Sandy and our Head of Campus in Mildura, Deb Neal, swung into action to make sure that students from SA can complete their lab sessions at La Trobe in Mildura. A terrific example of community spirit!


Muslim Art Awards

I was pleased to participate in an online ceremony to announce the winner of the 2020 Muslim Art Prize presented by the Islamic Museum of Australia. La Trobe sponsored the 2020 prize after sponsoring the inaugural awards last year. One of the benefits of being a sponsor is that the winning work becomes part of La Trobe’s art collection.

Congratulations to Abdul-Rahman Abdullah, a renowned artist from Mundijong on the outskirts of Perth, whose work Transplants, a beautiful tribute to his mother and her love of family, won this year’s prize. There were a record number of works submitted for this year’s prize, with works across a range of media and conceptual interests submitted by Malay, Moroccan, Indonesian, Pakistani, African and Iranian artists.


Honouring Professor Dennis McDermott

Finally, our community was shocked and saddened by the death of our Pro Vice-Chancellor (Indigenous), Professor Dennis McDermott, in April. We miss Dennis very much; however I am delighted that Chris Pakes has, with the blessing of Dennis’ family, made arrangements to offer the Dennis McDermott Research Scholarship at La Trobe. The scholarship is a wonderful recognition of Dennis and his contribution both to La Trobe and to Indigenous education in Australia.

The Dennis McDermott Research Scholarship will be awarded annually to an Indigenous student of exceptional research promise to undertake a higher degree in research with us.

Applications for the inaugural scholarship are open until 31 October.


As you can see, it’s been another incredible month at La Trobe. Thank you once again for your continuing commitment to the University. Please stay safe and warm. Hopefully when I send my next blog in October we will be basking in the early warmth of spring.

John