Today, October 18, 2040, marks the end of my service as Foundation Vice-Chancellor of Cleaver Greene University (CGU). It has been a privilege working with you over the last 10 years, seeing CGU grow from challenging idea to splendid reality. I would like to take the opportunity to not only reflect on our own journey, but more broadly on the turbulent times we have endured these last 20 years. When I started my academic leadership career the global higher education landscape was significantly different from today. I think it is fair to carve the last 20-odd years up in three periods: Retreat (- 2025), Restructure (2025-30), and Rebalance (2030-40).
Retreat (- 2025)
Starting with the Retreat period, we cannot ignore what we collectively brought upon ourselves. We let the powers that be ignore all the warning signs the Academy produced. The ‘places ignored’ indeed took their revenge and nationalism, extremism and populism took over, aided by a demise of the critical press and undue influence of social media spun out of control. Notwithstanding ongoing scientific progress, such as the advent of quantum computing and massive medical breakthroughs, our world became increasingly polarized and conflict-ridden. Our political system proved unable to deal with this, resulting in defunct national governments, spilling over to the international arena. It allowed the greatest danger of all, global warming, to progress almost unchecked. Calls from the IPCC were ignored, as were draughts, famine, floods and mass people movements. The academy was not the cause of this, but implicit in their effects due to inaction.
It took the perfect storm to bring order to this chaos. 2025 has gone down in history as the ‘thunder year’.
To me it always has been the ‘turning year’: nothing focuses the mind as much as the prospect of hanging, to paraphrase Samuel Johnson. Sydney, Melbourne, Brisbane, Adelaide and Perth flooded with the Antarctic ice sheet disintegrating, as happened the world over. Extreme weather was hitting home. Academe finally convinced the polity that collective action was the only answer. We saw the ‘supra-nationalisation’ of satellites to monitor weather patterns. Containment policies were put in place to ‘rebalance’ the global climate, including significant reduction in air travel which, apart from its emissions, had simply become too dangerous as a result of massive turbulence.
But, as the famous Dutch soccer player Johan Cruyff used to profess:
“Every disadvantage has its advantage” – or as many a vice-chancellor maintains: “never waste a crisis”. The advantage of the unified satellite system combined with the leap in quantum computing meant that within a blink of the eye our world was truly interconnected at superspeeds previously unknown.“
Limits on international travel and superspeed interconnectivity almost overnight killed off Australia’s golden goose: the international student market collapsed. Grabbing the technological opportunity VirtU was created through a joint venture of Google, Microsoft, Apple, Coursera, EdEx and the likes. VirtU brought the ultimate global classroom to our home, as holographic and full virtually reality becoming reality; “study where you want, with whom you want and what you want”. The ultimate individualized and optimized student experience at your fingertips, using the best course materials and staff across the world. This left the Australian university sector in tatters. And VirtU picked up the pieces. Not since Dawkins had Australia experienced such a merger/takeover frenzy. Only the strongest research universities survived the onslaught, propped up by a government finally realizing that in a knowledge-based future it needed to invest in the nations knowledge infrastructure.
Yet regional and global developments further complicated life for what remained of Australia’s university sector. Following the European Union, ASEAN established the Asian Research Council to further basic research, funded by its members, including Australia. Internationally, the Global Brain Trust was established to concentrate the world’s sharpest minds on how to combat global warming and contain the Internet of Things, with quantum computers going into self-programming mode. By 2030 this resulted in a moderate containment of the global climate and some form of political stability.
Technological change remained high with the ensuing need for workforce retraining/upskilling taking care of by VirtU partnering with local industry groups. Electronic portfolios of micro credentials became the knowledge workers’ currency. Demand for the once-traditional bachelor degree slumped. The ARC started to pay off with both Tsinghua and Beijing universities entering the ARWU top 10. Australia maintained its leading position in medical research, but in other areas saw top researchers taking their ARC grants to China, the strongest economy and academic centre in the world. It was in this context that our founding father had his brainwave. As Chief Justice he had not only seen the rapid demise and slow rebuild of the Australian political system, he had also observed the hollowing out of the public debate. Many in his close circle lamented the lack of thoughtful exchange of ideas and disrespect for tradition. This reminded him of Cardinal Newman’s ‘formation of the mind’, none of which featured in the VirtU curricula or in the remaining Australian universities. Thus, upon his retirement from the High Court, sponsored by his longtime friend and philanthropist Harry Strang, he founded CGU as Australia’s first liberal arts college.
CGU never was to be a large university. Today I pride myself on maintaining our 2,000 student community despite continued pressure to expand. Our 600 international faculty, the crème de la crème in their fields, have reconstituted the art of rhetoric and debate. Our alumni slowly but steadily are reforming the public and private sectors through their values-based leadership. Our region has been transformed through our commitment to academic, social and cultural engagement. Yes, we have been branded as ‘elitist’. If our achievements over the last 10 require an ‘elitist’ approach, I take that any day! Leading you has been a privilege for which I thank you profoundly.
Prof. Jack Irish
Director at the LH Martin Institute, Professor Leo Goedegebuure is active in the field of higher education policy research and management. Prior to his move to Australia in 2005 (University of New England, Centre for Higher Education Management and Policy), Leo was Executive Director of the Center for Higher Education Policy Studies (CHEPS), at the University of Twente, Netherlands, Europe’s largest research centre in this field.
Professor and Foundation Director of the LH Martin Institute, V. Lynn Meek was previously Professor and Director of the Centre for Higher Education Management and Policy at the University of New England. Having completed a PhD in the sociology of higher education at the University of Cambridge, he has more than three decades experience researching higher education policy issues