Vice-Chancellor gives intimate insight into his job

Wednesday 8 May, 2013

Fred Hilmer

The Vice-Chancellor of the University of New South Wales, Professor Fred Hilmer, shared some of his experiences as a vice-chancellor with Warrane residents when he spoke at the College on Wednesday 10 April 2013.

Apart from being one of Australia’s most senior academics, Professor Hilmer is also one of the country’s most experienced business leaders. His previous positions have included Chief Executive Officer of John Fairfax Holdings Limited and Dean and Director of the Australian Graduate School of Management (AGSM).

Among the points Professor Hilmer emphasised during his talk was the importance of students being able to live on campus, which is why the university has so significantly increased student accommodation.

“In a world where learning and teaching will be increasingly online, and where people work as well as coming to university, there is a danger that without a vibrant life on campus we will lose a lot in terms of the university experience,” he said.

“I think that there is so much more (to the university experience) than just getting your degree, getting your marks and getting your job.”

When he arrived, there were some tough issues that needed attention. One was whether UNSW should continue to be a “specialised university”.

“We have basically eight discipline-based faculties,” he said. “The more comprehensive universities – Sydney, Melbourne, Queensland- have up to 16 discipline-based faculties. We are very defined and one of the first things I reinforced was that in our specialisation is our strength.”

Professor Hilmer pointed to the fact that all faculty Deans report directly to him, which would not be possible with a large number. This ensured a more nimble, responsive and personal management style.

A key decision early in his administration was to close the UNSW campus in Singapore. Financial outlays on the campus would have exposed UNSW to major debt, which would have to be funded by borrowings.

“We looked hard, we tried to make it work, we tried to see if there was some other way to run this campus, but it didn’t seem to me that we could do that - it would have required us to have major economies on this campus and major cutbacks or deferments of capital – building the lecture rooms, the study spaces, the library and the research facilities that we need.”

Professor Hilmer said the decision had been a very difficult one for himself and the University Council, but it had been necessary. “One of the first things that you have to do when you are coming into a job is you have to clear the decks,” he explained. “You have to make the decisions that are festering - if you don’t deal with them they will become a bad sore.”

One of Professor Hilmer’s major objectives as Vice-Chancellor has been to increase the proportion of the State’s top 500 students choosing to study at UNSW. “This was an important goal - to make the university more attractive to students of the highest potential, by improving the educational experience. We have been very successful - in this year’s intake, 240 of the top 500 came here and we also had the highest median ATAR in the state.”

Another challenge was the need to upgrade infrastructure. Most buildings on campus had been built 40 to 50 years ago and UNSW had a very high maintenance backlog. “We had under-invested in both medicine and law and in some degree science. So as well as increasing our student housing the university now has a number of new state-of-the art buildings.”

Professor Hilmer pointed out that before he was appointed Vice-Chancellor there had been serious turmoil in the university’s administration. Engaging his attention early was the retention rate for research staff. “I looked at the research grants that were held by the people who came and the research grants that were taken away when somebody left – what I call our balance of trade.

“We are either trading up in terms of people who have the skill, reputation, and track record in winning research money, or we are trading down.

“We had been trading down. When we were in turmoil, a lot of people left and particularly a lot of good people who felt that we had lost our way.”

To reverse the balance, Professor Hilmer established a $20 million strategic fund, with Deans encouraged to compete for funding to hire outstanding researchers.

“We have hired literally hundreds of people on this program and it really has made a big difference. The balance of trade in terms of our research grants is now overwhelmingly positive – two to one in our favour now.

“So people are voting with their feet to come.”

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