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AAERI Virtual Convention 2020 – KEYNOTE ADDRESS: Roadmap to Recovery

August 25, 2020

Vicki Thomson, Chief Executive

Thank you for asking me to join you today.

It is really a pleasure to have been asked, given my keen involvement with  India, its research, its education and the planned reforms, and of course the PhD students from India whose commitment to excellence we have always valued in Australia.

We have  heard from Ravi, AAERI President about these difficult  times, and I know I  will not be the only speaker to say today,  that when we find our new, normal, post-COVID way of life, living and work finally resuming, then my regular visits to India to progress our already solid Go8 relationship, will be at the top of my must-do list.

Before I begin discussing today’s topic, I do want to say that I hope, fingers crossed, technology refuses to be temperamental, and enables us to have an enjoyable, productive and uninterrupted conversation together, one  that shows how much we are all on the same wavelength about the future aspirations of joint India/Australia relationships.

It used to be deemed the thing to do:  to begin a presentation such as mine today with a joke to engage those in the room.

Three quarters of the way through 2020, let’s be honest, there’s not a lot to joke about.

I am often asked to comment about the green shoots of COVID recovery. For the higher education sector in Australia, those shoots are yet to sprout.

We know it is only a matter of time.

It will happen.

But there is no clear timeline, and that is both a sadness and a great frustration.

It is eased somewhat by the fact that we also know we are not alone.

India, like so many productive nations, has been shattered  by the pandemic, with ramifications worse than any Australia has to date suffered; and I want to say I am very genuinely sorry to anyone joining today who has endured having their family suffer.

I find in these past months that I have appreciated a quote from Michele Obama which says “you should never view your challenges as a disadvantage. Instead, it’s important for you to understand that your experience facing and overcoming adversity is actually one of your biggest advantages.”

As we all know of, and worry about, people who are sick and of jobs lost

and of family budgets stretched far too tight for comfort

and in our sector also of students left thousands of kilometres away from where they chose to study

 of our invaluable research stalled, and our researchers made redundant,

…we all, I am sure, feel adversity has tested us long enough in a year that has brought locust plagues, bushfires, and floods as well as COVID-19.

To those listening and watching who know me, they will also know how much I am a glass half full person.

I will always choose to see the positive in any situation, and even now I do, because none of us,

 for the generations we are educating in the skills to build tomorrow’s world, as one new and better

 can afford to let COVID beat us; and we won’t.

Your President just now eloquently discussed the challenges ahead, and I want to address those from my perspective.

First let us put those challenges in context.

When we eventually reconnect face to face and grasp the opportunity to rebuild in better ways – Australia and India are not starting from scratch.

In fact – we are fortunate to have solid, trusting and deep relationships which have been established over many years.

We will be able to draw on these.

We have built enduring working partnerships. I know we all remain willing and able to move forward together with a common goal.

India is a dear friend to Australia – one of our closest.

As Prime Minister Modi said in the virtual summit with Prime Minister Morrison in June of this year:

“India-Australia relations are not only comprehensive, but also very deep. And this comes from our shared values, shared interest… and shared objectives. In the last few years that has been good momentum in our cooperation and coordination… I believe that this is the perfect time and perfect opportunity to further strengthen India-Australia relations.”[1] 

What he said was correct and we were pleased to hear it. It was a reaffirmation of why India and Australia do make such good partners – our shared value system.

I would also say, wearing my Go8 Chief Executive hat, that we also share an absolute determination to instil the value education has to an individual and to a community.

Of course, it is obvious that our two nations share more than our values, interests and objectives.

We also share the Indo-Pacific region, and so we share all the geo-political challenges visible in the region in 2020 as it pivots to the centre of world affairs, amid avid discussion about a new world order, or at least the same world order with a range of different emphases.

Australia and India are engaging to address this.

We are coming together more and more as part of broader coalitions as seen in our  mutual engagement with the US and Japan through the Quad (Quadrilateral Security Dialogue);

in our deeper defence and strategic engagement;

and by the elevation of the existing bilateral Strategic Partnership, to a Comprehensive Strategic Partnership in June of this year.

There is a strong belief in Australia that both  our countries and our Governments can negotiate our way through all of that successfully – so while it is something to be recognised as we plan, it is not something I will  dwell on here today.

Living together in the region means we also share many specific challenges that we will need to continue to manage and resolve.

We have those that affect our daily lives, our standards of living, and our trade agreements – such as the need for improved dry lands agriculture through agtech discoveries and implementations;  managing climate change from both a fiscal and a living perspective; and to water management, be it lack of water or salinity.

To work our way through these – none of which is without complexity – and as two nations displaying mutual respect and friendship, we are indeed fortunate that our leaders share a deep connection.

This is clear for all to see at both a national and a personal level.

The Go8 which I represent, is comprised of Australia’s leading research-intensive universities and has long been involved in India and with India. One of our first doctors and researchers into India – in 1912 so over 100 years ago, came from the University of Melbourne in Victoria.

Her name was Mary Glowery; not only a medical graduate but a Sister ; the only member of a religious order to be allowed to practise medicine through special dispensation of the Pope.

In a life dedicated to helping India’s children she went on to found India’s revered Catholic Health Association (CHAI).

There are many stories that illustrate our bond with India, the two-way relationships that have benefitted both nations. And today we continue to enjoy strong and jointly-fruitful links with our Indian partners.

Our bond is long and strong.

Today importantly three Go8 universities are engaged in Indian partnerships at PhD level.

Since 2008, the Monash-IITB Research Academy has been providing joint PhD training, with the aim of using a solutions-driven approach to addressing global problems. Many of the projects also involve industry partners, to help ensure the research is suitable for use by business.

We have taken a lot of pride in the impact of these joint-research programs – as both countries have benefited greatly – especially in areas I have mentioned previously such as agriculture and water and of course energy and medicine.[2] 

I would like to digress here to suggest that you visit the Go8 website when you have the opportunity to  locate a stunning publication the Go8 produced a couple of years back that was launched in Delhi by our then Education Minister and now our Trade Minister, Senator Simon Birmingham  – titled Excellence in India

 It illustrates so vividly how much we have done together in research, and the incredible societal impacts of that research – the real value that has been delivered to real people.   

Then we have our University of Queensland / IIT-Delhi collaboration, which also has goal-oriented projects that are cross-disciplinary and address grand challenges of interest to Australia, India and the global community, and, which of course, involve strong industry links wherever possible.[3]

Meanwhile our University of Melbourne has entered a collaboration with the IIT Kanpur/ IIT Madras/ IIT Kharagpur to deliver a Joint Doctoral Degree Program, in which students will receive one PhD degree jointly awarded by the University of Melbourne and one of the three IITs.[4]

These PhD programs are highly acclaimed because of the high quality standards they employ – of the students selected to participate in the research, and the calibre of the institutions in both of our countries.  It is a matter of pride that we have this commitment to excellence in the joint programs we set up.

You will notice that there is a strong research focus in the examples I have set out.

This is not any coincidence.

The Go8 universities are multidisciplinary and comprehensive. They offer a broad spectrum of high-quality courses for high-quality students in a research-rich environment.

Our expectations of our students are high – gaining entry to a Go8 university in Australia is not easy.

They are enrolled with the expectation they will graduate at a level that enables them to choose advanced study such as Masters or PhD should they so choose.

And the Go8 proudly offers those courses not only to Australian students but to high quality students from anywhere in the world, including India, who meet our enrolment criteria.

 In 2019 there were 10,305 enrolments from Indian nationals across the eight Go8 members, representing 11 per cent of university sector enrolments.

Many of these students were studying at advanced levels – 81 per cent at postgraduate or research level. In fact, 43 per cent of enrolments from Indian nationals who came to Australia to pursue a research degree, did so at a Go8 university.

We are proud to represent the universities of choice for these students.

We look forward to welcoming more students from India when our borders reopen. As I say each and every time I come to India…… there is a welcome mat out always.

Again, if I may digress slightly, I thought it would interest you to know that we expect to see increased enrolments at the Go8 from Indian students who have gone to school in Australia.

This is because since 2016, India has become the nation whose migrants have increased the most in Australia. We now are home to some 592,000 Indians, a 30 per cent rise since 2016.

This makes India Australia’s third highest migrant location; after England and then China, displacing our near neighbour New Zealand into fourth place.

So it follows that we are looking forward to seeing many more Indian resident students at a Go8 too. What they will find are eight universities distinguished by being ranked as world class research universities.

Seven of the Go8’s eight members were recently ranked within the world’s top 100 universities in the 2020 release of the Academic Ranking of World Universities – and one, the University of Melbourne, within the Top 50.[5]

Research is in our DNA if you like.

And today’s audience well understands that especially because of COVID, high quality, rigorous research has never been more important to both a national and a global recovery and future prosperity.

And that is as true for Australia as it is for India.

COVID’s many challenges are being worked on 24/7 as we speak within our universities.

Not within living memory has the world been confronted with a more glaring illustration of how we must all come together if we are to overcome these, and other, challenges.

On the other hand – never has the world had a better example of how we can come together to overcome these challenges.

I am sure I don’t have to persuade today’s audience that research has no borders. The best minds will find the best solutions regardless of what country they reside in or work from.

That is simply what the global research family does.

As we speak, the University of Queensland, for example, is working on a vaccine candidate funded by global body, the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations (CEPI).

All around the world – scientists are collaborating as never before. We can get through this – and other challenges – if we work together.

More and more, our future is based on the value of research.  And the more the Go8 can work with India to take a lead in high quality and mutually beneficial research, the more opportunities will open for more young people from both our countries to aspire to and access a quality higher education, and a research career future that benefits us all. 

That said, COVID offers us far more than the opportunity to work together. Back to the glass half full!

 It also offers us a chance to take a step back and imagine higher education and research systems not as they were, but how they could be.

We have all faced enormous disruption, some disastrous disruption. We will all have to rebuild, so why not rebuild into something better and stronger, rather than see the future as working hard to replace what was there pre-COVID?

Frankly, and I know my Vice Chancellors agree, what was, what worked before, will not work for the future. Too much has changed – to go back to what once was – whether it be people or practices.

We have a duty to our countries and to current and future generations of students to rethink how best we rebuild. We can do that. We all know that we can.

I was thinking about that rebuild when I re-read India’s recently released National Education Plan. This is a remarkable document that any nation would be proud of.

Not only does it  outline a new model for education delivery, but it sets out a vision that builds on the notion of higher education as more than a means to deliver education, but as a foundational experience to build well rounded, engaged, and responsible citizens.

In fact, it goes to the very core of what education should always, and I emphasise always, be expected to provide.

It recognises the critical importance of flagship research universities. It includes an ambitious proposal – but one absolutely within reach given the right resources and methodology – to establish a group of multidisciplinary elite universities – India’s answer to the Ivy League.

So many of India’s top students relocate to study in the US; very much their top destination of choice.

But wouldn’t it be amazing if they had the choice to gain an equally high level of education at home should they choose to remain onshore?  India can do this. It certainly has the determination and we applaud that.

Australia also has this Ivy League model in the Go8  – hence our position in the world’s top 100 universities – one of multidisciplinary, world class universities, built on the foundation of developing Australian minds and Australian talent.

This then attracts the best and brightest from around the world who want to work and study within our universities, and we have done this without the Ivy League’s amazing advantage of extensive endowments.  How we wish!

Australia and the Go8 are happy to share our model with our Indian colleagues as they work to deliver on this vital goal. It would be rewarding to be considered part of such a development project – so much can be done with friends and partners working together.

It goes without saying that we can also learn much from your vision. We admire how India has started with the fundamental question – what is Higher Education for? – and the answer you have come up with.

Higher Education is about knowledge development and training, but it is also about learning how to be a human being. None of us in this sector can be allowed to forget that ignore that.

Nor can our policy makers and our politicians.

My personal view is that in Australia universities are sometimes viewed as degree factories – and not to build the inherently good person who can benefit the world from their personal growth and values at the same time.

That being the making of a good human being was part of our job was expressed to me by the previous High Commissioner of India to Australia, His Excellency Dr A.M. Gondane, at a roundtable hosted by the Go8 in September 2019 on the then draft National Education Plan.

He wisely said  “you don’t make a carpenter out of a man, you make a man while building a carpenter”.

How wonderful for us if we could emulate this vision of yours in Australia.

So – let us please work together in partnership, both understanding and believing that it’s clear the future can be a bright one – because no matter how awful the challenge to overcome, challenges also bring opportunities.

And Australia and India have, as I have stressed a number of times this morning very deliberately, a strong foundation from which to build, and also much that we can learn from each other.

We are also fortunate to have strong support from both of our Governments to make this happen.

Prime Minister Scott Morrison has noted the importance of joining our best and brightest scientific minds together through the Australia India Strategic Research Fund.[6]

The Australian Government’s India Economic Strategy, released in 2018, places education engagement front and centre of the relationship.

And the two are of course linked. High quality research discoveries lead to knowledge development which is fed back to society through education and training, to create the highly skilled professionals who will support our future.

What we have is the circle of knowledge, and to those of us who hold higher education and quality research dear, there is nothing more precious we can give future generations.

The next question is where to from here, and that is one we must consider today.

While it is wonderful that we have managed to have this virtual gathering – we must use it to drive outcomes. Outcomes equals time well spent.

There is a challenge – which we cannot allow to define our thinking – in when it will be possible to resume mobility of students and researchers between our two countries.

While the borders are closed – for now – and we don’t know when they will re-open – we can still plan for the brighter future which will come.

We must be ready. Because when they do open – and they will – we will have no time to waste. I am a great believer in being ready to grasp opportunities.

Planning is critical and we can do that in partnership as always.

Ravi raised a number of important issues and I do not in any way wish to gloss over them. It has been extremely hard. In fact hard is a euphemism for what India especially has been going through.

But I am here to reassure everyone that we are doing everything we can to look after the international students who are currently here, and to make it as safe as possible for other students to return as soon as it is considered safe to do so by Government medical experts.

Universities do not get to make that decision.

Border closures and health decisions are made only by Government.

The Go8 has however been working closely with Australia’s state and territory governments, and the Federal Government, to see if what are called “secure corridor” plans can be put in place.

These secure corridors would allow for small cohorts of our students who already have an Australian visa, to begin to re-enter Australia under safe protocols.

These protocols would include strict hotel quarantine for two weeks before returning to university and health checks before leaving their country of origin and on arrival into Australia.

Frankly – such a corridor plan would be the same as we have seen used for the regular Air India planes full of Indian-Australians who have been given permission to re-enter Australia in the past few months.

The last such plane I saw land in my home city of Adelaide was just two weeks ago.

So there is hope.

You may be aware that a pilot program to allow students into South Australia to attend the three universities there is currently waiting on Prime Ministerial sign-off.

The Northern Territory is also close to having such a pilot plan finalised for approval.

The Australian National University, University of Canberra and ACT Government are also advanced in their planning, however this is currently on hold due to the difficult second wave COVID outbreak in Victoria and continued small numbers in NSW which shares a border with the ACT.

Australia has not been as quick to open our borders as some other countries, and that has been frustrating students and their families who have visas to study with us.

I understand that and I feel for everyone who is affected by this.

And I know each Go8 university has teams of staff making regular personal contact with their students to reassure them that we are doing our best, but that such decisions are unfortunately out of the universities’ hands.

Today I want to take the opportunity to reassure everyone that this does not mean Australia is not eager to see life resumed on our vibrant, multicultural campuses.

On the contrary, it means that Australia is determined to make sure that our environments are as safe as possible and does not want to put anyone at risk.

For that reason, Australia is taking a cautious approach, with safety a key priority.

So yes, while it is frustrating and it may take us a little longer than some other countries to get there, rest assured we will get there.

We look forward to having everyone back and we will make up for time lost because the Go8’s commitment to excellence will continue to shine through.

I want to reiterate that the Go8 has worked with our state and Territory governments to provide as much support as we can to those students from India and elsewhere who are here in Australia as we negotiate our way through COVID.

Support from our member universities ranges from providing emergency funds, additional IT support, accommodation assistance, even food hampers in some cases. And importantly mental health support.

The Go8 recently co-hosted a webinar with the Australian Council of Social Service (ACOSS) raising awareness of the issues currently facing some of our international students who are in Australia.

We were pleased to note Prime Minister Modi’s comments acknowledging the “care extended to the Indian diaspora in Australia, especially the Indian students, that is our students, during this very difficult time”. [7] 

And of course I know you would be aware that the Australian government recently announced changes to visa conditions, that will now allow current visa holders who are studying outside Australia to use this study to count towards post study work rights in Australia.

This is a small example of what we can now achieve.

Australian universities – including the Go8 – pivoted rapidly when COVID hit to new forms of high-quality on-line delivery. Our quality education offering has not been compromised.

2020 has been a long and very difficult year but back to the half full cup, we can still achieve much, despite everything.

This conference for example.

I am sitting here speaking to you from Adelaide; to an audience located across two countries: India and Australia. The future can be bright, and it is research driven, and we can make it happen. 

That is on us – as educators and as researchers.


[1] https://www.pm.gov.au/media/virtual-summit-prime-minister-india
[2] http://www.iitbmonash.org/about-the-academy/
[3] https://www.uqidar.org/vision-and-objectives/
[4] https://mipa.unimelb.edu.au/apply-for-mipa/
[5] http://www.shanghairanking.com/World-University-Rankings-2020/Australia.html
[6] https://www.pm.gov.au/media/virtual-summit-prime-minister-india[7] https://www.pm.gov.au/media/virtual-summit-prime-minister-india