Leadership Forum 2020 | Wrap Up

Leadership Forum 2020 | Wrap Up

The 2020 Engagement Australia signature Leadership Forum themed A burning world: generational change or apocalypse? saw 40 senior university leaders come together in Canberra recently to hear from an international panel of experts about how engaged universities in Australia might respond to the current climate crisis and emergency within the context of the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (UN SDGs).

Professor Sharon Bell, Interim Dean of the ANU College of Asia & the Pacific, provided some powerful opening remarks to Leadership Forum participants highlighting the fact that a compelling narrative around climate change had existed for a number of years presenting an existential challenge and possible impending ecological disaster for Australia. Yet it had proved difficult to date to move the debate beyond an economic agenda. Professor Bell reported that in recent times Canberra had achieved the unenviable status of becoming the most polluted city in the world, smashed by extreme weather events, lurching from severe bushfires bringing excessive cloud pollution to damaging hailstorms. Such apocalyptic scenes had been experienced on an even greater scale in other parts of Australia, leaving many to ponder the question

Is the crisis so huge that it defeats our imaginations to solve it?
Sharon called on participants to focus on two things at this increasingly late stage in the climate debate. Firstly, to reject absolutely the phrase ‘the new normal’ as the dominant term being used to describe Australia’s current and future environmental conditions, as extreme weather events experienced in recent months were ‘completely abnormal.’ Secondly, to recognise that our sector’s most fragile environments were those areas situated outside of our metropolitan university city areas.

Generational change was needed to address these new abnormal environmental conditions at this conjunctural moment in our history where the new narrative would either lead to a change in our practices and ways of thinking or tip us over the edge into irreversible ecological damage. The best hope of success for this new narrative was that its momentum was being driven by a new generation in Australia and beyond, typified by our new generation of students which gave cause for optimism.

Duncan Ross, who oversees the Times Higher Education (THE) Impact ranking which was launched last year and is based on the UN SDGs, addressed the Leadership Forum stating that the recent Australian bushfires were a wake-up call to the rest of the world as they could happen anywhere given global climate challenges. This summer Australia had shown the world just how bad the notion of a burning world could be and Duncan called for an ‘inclusive’ approach to be adopted by universities by as many of the Big Issues facing the sector such as the climate crisis, poverty, migration etc were inter-related. A broad framework accepted by governments across the world already existed in the form of the UN SDGs and THE planned to make these goals a major focus of their ranking of universities’ impact on society through their research, teaching, stewardship of resources and engagement. This year 17 UN SDG measures would be included in the THE ranking including the one on climate.

Such international ranking systems are a powerful driver in changing behaviour among universities and academe towards identified strategic priorities such as equity, especially in terms of increasing their first-generation student number. Equally, Duncan reminded universities present not to underestimate their own power and influence when working together as a group. The 23,000 universities worldwide consisting of 9 million published academics represented an extraordinary economic powerhouse and if Australian universities came together to press the energy companies for a greater decarbonisation of power supply they may be more likely to achieve a greener grid.

Professor Geoff Scott, Senior Adviser at Western Sydney (WSU) on the integration of UN SDGs into their university curriculum (WSU were ranked No.1 in Australia and No.11 in the world in the inaugural THE Impact league table last year) informed participants that a shift was taking place before our very eyes among Australian universities that were choosing to return to their original ‘moral purpose.’ He argued that UN SDGs provided a helpful framework for universities seeking to revise their curriculum against a moral and ethical purpose with the aim of producing graduates who were:

  • sustainability literate;
  • change implementation savvy;
  • inventive (entrepreneurial, innovative and creative but also morally and socially inventive); and,
  • with an understanding of the tacit assumptions driving the 21st century eg. Globalisation

Many speakers expressed their belief that Engagement Australia (EA), which now represented the majority of universities Australia (inclusive of all subgroups) should take a lead on supporting the Australian HE sector in relation to the UN SDGs. EA were now strongly positioned nationally and internationally to ‘network the networks’ for the benefit of Australian universities wishing to ‘enable’ the Sustainability Goals within their institution. Leadership Forum participants agreed that this should be a major focus for EA over the coming year and welcomed EA’s strategic direction to theme its national conference and next Journal Issue around the progress of UN SDGs.  The national conference will also host the new Engagement Australia Awards (formerly BHERT Awards) which were launched by Callista Thillou, Deputy Chair of EA, at the Leadership Forum.

Dr Jessica Weir, linked the shift in the moral compass of universities to the need to do more for our nation’s First Peoples. Jessica has written authoritatively on how the bushfires have been experienced by our nation’s First Peoples, highlighting the importance of ‘Country’ which was an immense heritage for all Australians. She stressed the importance of a greater inclusion of Indigenous knowledge in universities which gives priority to ‘reflexivity’ as opposed to simply reflection. Reflexivity provides a focus on ‘how’ we think about things rather than just ‘what’ we think about. Jessica’s research showed that many issues and challenges relating to our nation’s First Peoples (such as those relating to the bush) are interconnected. The logic of ‘Country’ struggles with a separation of land and culture; and similar to our approach to the UN SDGs, our response to the recent bushfires needs to be ‘inclusive’ in its nature.

Dr Billy Osteen, who leads the University of Canterbury’s internationally recognised student engagement accredited program ‘Rebuilding Christchurch’ recalled Professor Ira Harkavy’s notion of ‘city, soil and seminar’ – highlighting the need for universities to ‘give back’ to their local communities. In Christchurch students at UoC had volunteered in droves to support their local community following devastating earthquakes in recent years. The University had effectively framed an academic program around this community volunteering effort, capturing the rich learning taking place – with one third of the program consisting of community volunteering, one third reflection and reflexivity, and one third written assignment. Following the success of the program community engagement now represents one of only four ‘Graduate Attribute Pillars’ within the University.

Dr Emma Camp, the Chancellor’s Postdoctoral Research Fellow on Climate Change at UTS who has been appointed as the UN’s Young Leader for the Sustainable Development Goals argued powerfully that the climate crisis has intensified the urgency with which we have to act through socio-economic mechanisms. She asserted that the most important UN SDG was that which related to partnerships’ (UN SDG 19) which stressed the need to capture the interconnectedness of the Goals. There were currently challenges with governance issues and how to integrate them into university settings however universities do have the capacity to move on the goals and the Engagement Australia network could help them in this respect.

All speakers agreed that there was a connection between what might appear to be disparate things; between global economics and the need to re-invent the public sphere and university’s sense of place and space. Participants went further to assert that there now exists an opportunity for universities to come together and join forces to express a unified and more powerful voice to government(s), industry and community through a new higher education prism designed to enact the UN SDGs.

Nobody obviously stands ten feet above contradiction, someone once observed, but it is equally clear that nobody can stand outside this coming crisis. What then to do and when to do it? If we truly are at a (the) conjuncture, then it is a tipping point that welcomes the new narrative that is being led by our current generation of students which provides a sense of optimism for change and action. Such change and action will no doubt come at a price.  However, the price of the new narrative must be worth paying as non-payment will, quite literally, cost the earth.