Maria Rampa: Hi, I’m Maria Rampa and welcome to this episode of Engineering Reimagined. Over the past two years, the university sector, like so many others, has had to adjust to a ‘new normal’. With the onset of COVID-19, international students fled to their home countries, local students were placed in lockdown and staff were faced with the challenge of recreating their entire curriculum online. At the same time, researchers became integral to finding many of the answers to dealing with this unprecedented pandemic. But with every crisis comes opportunity and in this episode Aurecon’s CEO, William Cox, speaks with Vice-Chancellor and President of The University of Queensland, Professor Deborah Terry, about how the challenges faced by the university and the sector as a whole during the pandemic, has also provided an opportunity for change.
The campus experience is still invaluable, but the way in which students, staff, academics, researchers, industry and the community engage both online and face to face, and what the campus will look like into the future, could be altered forever.
William Cox: How's the year started for UQ, with COVID getting in the way, unfortunately.
Prof Deborah Terry: What's been good for us is that we've put in place vaccine requirements and students are back. And it's wonderful. I mean, for the first time in two years, you just get a sense of lots of people being around. We had thought we might have 70% of our international students back. We've only got about 50% and the other 50% are studying online still. The residential colleges are basically full, it's lively. You don't realise how much you've missed it until it's back.
William Cox: And one of the fundamental things about universities is, it's a community within a community. And so having that life back in there again, is stimulating for everybody. As an aside, my son, Hamish is doing the second year of a computer science degree at the University of New South Wales. And he's literally doing face to face lectures again, for the first time since he started. Everything last year was pretty much online. Tell me, how are your academic staff and all of the researchers handling the changes? Are they comfortable to be back? Or are some of them a little hesitant for health reasons?
Prof Deborah Terry: For our staff, they feel quite safe to come back. They feel that it's a safe community. To be on campus, you need to at least have had your double dose. So, that I think has helped in terms of confidence to come back onto campus. But the notion of what our working life looks like into the future is going to change a bit.
William Cox: How do you see it changing the way universities are going to operate into the future? Because we've all learned a lot about how we can operate in a very different way over the course of the last two years.
Prof Deborah Terry: It's one of the most disruptive events any of us have experienced, in living memory for the majority of us. But it was also an accelerant of change. We had to very quickly make the move to online delivery, and, full marks to all of our colleagues right across the sector, and to our students, the response was immediate, and, everyone pulled together. But I think what we are now looking at, particularly around our teaching and learning is, well, what does our online presence look like, into the future? For our graduates and our alumni to remain competitive in the workforce, our graduates are going to have to come dipping in and out of education into the future. And they'll need to do that just in time. We are also looking very closely at research. The pandemic did expose some gaps in sovereign capability in terms of our capacity to manufacture products, such as vaccines and biologics locally. And I think we will see a lot of engagement of our researchers in those kinds of issues, particularly how we translate and commercialise outcomes from our research, and obviously very pleased to see the big announcement around additional funding to really support research commercialisation here in Australia.
William Cox: In terms of your people, staff, the academic workforce, are you seeing a lot of movement and a lot of change, same as other sectors at the moment? Or is it reasonably stable?
Prof Deborah Terry: It's a very hot employment market, we are certainly feeling the impacts of that, particularly in areas such as major project development and oversight for big digital projects. I think those people with those kinds of skills are really in demand, many data scientists and people with those sorts of skills are also in demand.
William Cox: Are you seeing any hesitancy or concern about people wanting to come to Australia because of the way our borders have been managed over the last couple of years?
Prof Deborah Terry: We were very cognisant of that risk because UK and Canada opened up their borders earlier to international students. And that was of concern. Australian higher education still has an extraordinarily strong reputation. And we are seeing our students very keen to return. But I think it's something we're going to have to watch, very carefully. We're certainly not out of the period of uncertainty. Overall, our numbers of international students have stayed strong, but I think, for them, it really is that full campus experience and everything that comes from living in Australia, studying in another country. We were pleased to see the announcements that have occurred over the last few months in terms of opening the Australian Border for some international students. It was pretty tight in terms of timing, that's why I think we're seeing still a significant proportion of our students offshore, but hopefully we'll see them coming back through the semester.
William Cox: How are you seeing students and staff bouncing back from what has been a very traumatic for some and challenging time for many? There are lots of discussions in all parts of our community around the mental health impacts of the pandemic. How are you sort of reading the situation, people coping longer term with what's happened, both from your education role, but also from your professional expertise?
Prof Deborah Terry: It is going to take a while. We've just come through two years of uncertainty, of anxiety, of added stresses, being away from family and homeschooling and a whole range of issues. I felt certainly from our staff, they were tired at the end of last year, they were really tired. But, I'd worry about some of our early career academics, the impact particularly on female, early career researchers because that's where you come out of your PhD, and there's a critical period where you're building your track record, and a lot of the connections that you make in your field are through conferences, and all of those things that we've taken for granted for so long. And many do work quite well through Zoom and other platforms, but it doesn't beat the face to face discussion and the networking opportunities. So, I do really worry about that cohort. I worry about, we've got, some students, who have spent the last two years studying online from home. And, this is the time of, your life, when we look back on our university experience, of that whole experience and discovering new ideas, and in a sense, discovering what you stand for as a person through all of the things that you do at university. There is a cohort of our young people who have missed that. I'm very keen to as much as we can ensure that as our students come back, that they're able to experience all of the things that sit around a very strong university experience.
William Cox: There's certainly recovery time and catching up in all sorts of ways. And with that, in terms of some of the opportunities or the positives, that we can take away from that, what would be two or three things that you would say that you've discovered, things that you say, "you know, what we can use that, that's a discovery that we can we can take into the future for good."
Prof Deborah Terry: We will now be much, much slicker in terms of what we can do online, what we need to travel for, how we can use digital tools to just be more efficient in our workplaces, and I'm sure you're finding that at Aurecon, you don't necessarily have to have everyone in the room, some can be coming in remotely. And I just think that's going to make us more efficient workplaces, but also more accessible workplaces, it's almost become second nature. Look, why don't we just have a quick Zoom discussion on that, or, I don't have to fly to Sydney for a meeting. Let's do that online. That's better for our environment, it's better for our health, it's better for time management, I think it will get much better outcomes. But it's also better for people in our workforce for whom travel is difficult for different reasons. I think we're already seeing signs it will stay with us, which is a good thing.
William Cox: The other one that I'm just keen to explore is the actual physical campus itself. And given the circumstances of the last couple of years, what thoughts might you have had around how you could use the campus differently, or parts of the campus differently?
Prof Deborah Terry: What this period has forced us to do, but we were going to have to do it anyway, is really understand the value add of the campus experience, because there are some things that are part of education, which it is actually better to perhaps do it online, be able to look at a recorded lecture to go back and check bits, use it for revision, but there are other things that our campuses are critical for, and where we need to be putting, more emphasis on. So for instance, we were seeing more accommodation on campus. In that environment, being able to take advantage of the sporting clubs, and the other experiences on campus, that rich campus life, I think the residential facilities will be becoming really important. I think, we will see as other sectors are seeing, our office areas, being utilised differently, and therefore we need to make our campuses, more permeable and accessible to industry partners, startups that are coming out of our research efforts being co-located on campus and I think we will see even more of that, where you get the kind of environment that really facilitates innovation precincts where people want to be associated with universities, because there's lots of cool things that happen here, and startups and other groups, will start using our infrastructure more for colocation with partners etc as some of the other usage perhaps becomes less. Our library spaces are radically changing. Now, they were already radically changing. A library these days, not many books around, but there's lots of study spaces, and there's lots of spaces where groups are interacting and working on problems. And I think that will just speed up. We're even seeing with a lot of our student facilities, needing to put in lots of end of journey facilities, which traditionally weren't necessarily there as much as they need to be now. So a whole lot of things coming together.
William Cox: That's very consistent with what we're seeing in different sectors, that it's been a catalyst to really pose some interesting questions. And to reuse or reimagine and reinvent existing spaces.
Prof Deborah Terry: All of us are becoming very conscious of sustainability and looking at ways in which we can all reduce our carbon footprints, reusing facilities, thinking about adaptive reuse, creative reuse, rather than necessarily always rebuilding entirely. And I think we're going to see a lot more of that.
William Cox: And in terms of the whole concept of the circular economy, and not just demolishing things and building new things, just for the sake of it, if it doesn't need to be done. It's a better sustainable outcome. Change of pace a little bit. But very much related. Are you starting to see research papers starting to be developed, that have been looking at what has been happening over the last two years, both in terms of the medical side, but all of the social aspects of the pandemic, and that we're starting to see, theses and PhDs and things being written around this. Because if we weren't living in the middle of it, it's a fascinating thing to have looked at all of the different dimensions of it. Are you starting to see work happen in that regard?
Prof Deborah Terry: We certainly saw right through the pandemic, our scientists, our health professionals, our researchers, really being at the forefront of a lot of the commentary around what has been happening, but yes, a lot of that has been on the public health dynamics. Here at UQ, we have the big vaccine work. We've had university-based experts out there explaining everything from, what does flattening the curve mean, the mathematics of social distancing. There's been lots of discussions on the dynamics of panic buying, what in a sense does that reflect? We are certainly seeing theses, we're seeing research in a lot of areas coming out, really looking at issues that arose. The mental health issues, the social isolation issues that emerged in many parts of our community, the understanding of public health responses. I think there will be many, many theses and research programs that will certainly continue into the future. If I take, particularly, the vaccine work here at UQ, that's not something that will stop. That's critically important, and I think what this has exposed is just how important it is that we continue all of that work in so many of our health areas, but much more broadly, all of the issues around ventilation, how do we design buildings or retrofit buildings with different ventilation systems? And that's certainly been a big issue for our engineering faculties. There's a lot of interesting areas.
William Cox: Do you think the role and the status of researchers, scientists, academics has been enhanced as being seen as the apolitical experts that people can rely on?
Prof Deborah Terry: I do. During the first 12 months of the pandemic, The big media monitoring group iSentia, found that university experts were quoted or interviewed close to 70,000 times in media stories, and I think there's been a recognition of the expertise that does sit within our universities and our research institutions, and there's been a hunger for that expertise. To be able to hear those views, to be able to have those voices as a core part of how the pandemic has been reported. I do think that researchers and university experts have been a very trusted group, they remain trusted, and certainly the data show that. But I think the visibility has added a sense of the value, the importance of our institutions.
William Cox: You took over as the Vice Chancellor and President as this was all breaking out. What changes did you make in your leadership style? And how did you respond to leading in a very different way? Because, for all of us as leaders, it threw out the book, in terms of how you would normally lead an organisation. What did you discover? And what do you reflect on, some of the key changes that you made to successfully navigate the university through this?
Prof Deborah Terry: In a sense, it reinforced something that we all know in leadership positions, but just the importance of communication. The importance of clarity of message and the communication needing to be absolutely not delayed, immediate as announcements were being made, in accessible language with, links to appropriate resources. Just running critical incident teams, and being able to stand them up quickly, have a really clear sense of what the group needs to do; clear agendas, working through the issues, getting communications out to the right level, immediately. And the empathy I think, being able to acknowledge in large communities like ours, people are suffering. How a pandemic impacts on big communities varies, depending on your own family circumstances and people being separated from loved ones for months, years.
William Cox: And helping people through that uncertainty has certainly been something that I've reflected on and in that environment you couldn't over communicate. But in some cases, being honest, and saying, 'I don't actually know the answer right now, but we'll get you an answer. We're on it." There was no playbook for this. You can be prepared. But you can't plan for this. It's just having that agile mindset to deal with what comes is really what it came down to.
William Cox: Reflecting on this very important leadership role that you've taken at The University of Queensland through an unprecedented moment in history. Who has inspired you through your career that helped to inform you in terms of the role that you're having now?
Prof Deborah Terry: I did have the opportunity of working very closely with a colleague here, when I was last at The University of Queensland, who had a previous, but very esteemed career in defence. And, he did teach me that, you just take it one step at a time, you just deal with issues one step at a time, to try and deal with them, don't overthink what might happen out there on the horizon. So, that approach has certainly helped. I've had great mentors for staying true to your mission. Last year, we launched our new strategic plan. It has really grounded for me and my colleagues, remembering that institutions, like universities, we exist for the public good, over the years, I've had the opportunity to work with some wonderful people who are always grounded by that, why do institutions like universities absolutely have to change, but at another level, we have to make sure that we do not move away from what we've always existed for, which is to educate and to research, but also to be important cornerstones of strong civic societies. And, no more does that become a focus than during periods of great uncertainty. It's the strength of our civic society and our democracies that are absolutely critical to the future. And recognising the place that institutions like universities claim that.
William Cox: Mission and purpose are both very strong in giving you that focus. So Debbie, really appreciate your time, and the partnership that The University of Queensland continues to have with Aurecon. You've been very generous with your thoughts, and I look forward to being able to come and visit you in person next time I'm in Brisbane.
Prof Deborah Terry: Thank you very much, likewise, and really appreciate the strong partnership we have with Aurecon and look forward to that partnership continuing to strengthen into the future. It's been wonderful to talk with you Bill, as always.
Maria Rampa: We hope you gained some valuable insights from this discussion about the future of education in the new normal. If you enjoyed this episode of Engineering Reimagined, hit subscribe on Apple, Google Podcasts or Spotify and don’t forget to follow Aurecon on your favourite social media platform to stay up to date and join the conversation.
Until next time, thanks for listening.