Season’s Greetings From EA Chair Professor Jim Nyland

Season’s Greetings From EA Chair Professor Jim Nyland

As Chair of Engagement Australia (EA) can I take this opportunity to wish you and your family all the very best for the festive season, as we hurtle towards the end the year. The third decade of the 21st Century continues to be a time of great challenge, change and opportunity for universities everywhere as witnessed at the fabulous 2023 Engagement Australia International Conference and Excellence Awards annual event themed Engaged Universities: the Next 20 Years are Crucial! Over one hundred participants attended EA’s international conference last month which was superbly hosted by Western Sydney University on the historic Parramatta Campus. Reflecting on the range, the reach and the depth of contributions from outstanding speakers over the three days it is striking just how far we have come in defining and shaping the concept of engagement.

The conference celebrated EA’s twentieth year anniversary.  Established in 2003 by Western Sydney University’s then Vice Chancellor, Professor Jan Reid, and with unanimous support from the VC’s Committee of the time (Australian Vice-Chancellor’s Committee) Engagement Australia was created (under its former guise AUCEA) and quickly became recognised as the peak body for engaged universities in Australia.  The nation needed to invest in the public realm and services, in order to build a more resilient economy and society, and higher education was to be at the heart of this challenge.  The Opening Keynote Speaker at the conference was Professor Jonathan Grant, Founding Director of Different Angles Ltd, a consultancy that focuses on the social impact of universities and research; and previously Professor of Public Policy at King’s College London.  Jonathan invited participants to explore how universities across the world were reimagining the role of universities with the idea of civic and public purpose at their heart.  Following his presentation Professors Sharon Bell and Verity Firth continued the conversation drawing out many of the key points raised and applying them critically to the Australian context as our nation looks to reset, renew and rejuvenate our cherished sector through the Accord process. Reflecting on the last two decades and looking beyond the next twenty-year horizon participants were invited to consider the key question:

‘Can the promises made in the past about the need for a more equal and socially just society through a more engaged education process be redeemed in the future?’

The opening Keynote and panel discussion was an excellent segway into an in-depth discussion about the much-anticipated policy settings that are set to emerge from the Australian Universities Accord.  I had the privilege of facilitating a conversation with Professor Barney Glover AO and The Hon. Fiona Nash. Key which yielded many important insights, including:

  • The role of the Accord was to provide a clear mandate for Australian universities.
  • The importance of higher education engagement and the need for institutions to have a social conscience.
  • Recognition of the complexity of the Accord, with a call for a tailored approach to regional Australia.
  • Emphasis on the pivotal role local communities can play in supporting regional youth in attaining higher education.
  • Discussion on the necessity of scholarship schemes for capturing students from regional areas.
  • Twin pillars of equity and engagement to feature strongly in the Accord

Continuing the discourse, the second panel “The Accord, where to now?” explored the post-Accord higher education environment. Facilitated by Professor Jessica Vanderlelie, the panel included NCSEHE’s Professor Shamit Saggar, Professor Christy Collis, Paul Harris, Professor Leanne Holt, and Chris Ronan. Key takeaways included:

  • The historic context of Indigenous higher education and the need to challenge western-dominant views and elitism in education.
  • Challenges to achieving equity in education, with a focus on market failures and the marginalisation of education in regional communities.
  • The urgent need for an equitable distribution of political capital and accountability for strategic financial usage.
  • Recognition of the importance of ‘belonging’ for equity students, irrespective of their backgrounds.
  • The need to challenge the historical perception of universities as founts of knowledge and towards a user-centric approach.

Both sessions on the Accord process highlighted the need for universities to be able to measure engagement.  The conference celebrated the Media Announcement that two Australian universities – University of Technology Sydney and the Australian Catholic University – had received Carnegie Elective Community Engagement Classification kitemark, which is the gold standard measurement for engagement, overseen by Engagement Australia.

By way of background, the Carnegie Community Engagement Classification is awarded following a process of self-study by each institution, which is then assessed by an international review committee. The classification has been the leading framework for institutional assessment and recognition of community engagement in U.S. higher education for the past 17 years.  In 2019 an Australian pilot initiative explored the internationalisation of the Classification system. Ten higher education institutions actively participated in the pilot, with an additional eight acting as observers. The process led to the design of an Australian specific Classification that was contextualised and made relevant to the local setting.

Australian Catholic University and University Technology Sydney are likely to be accompanied by others soon, as the Elective Carnegie Community Engagement Classification continues to expand across the globe. A successful pilot initiative in Canada is likely to result in the implementation of that nation’s first Classification cycle in 2024. Active interest from South Africa, Thailand and Vietnam suggests that others are to follow in the not-too-distant future.  Engagement Australia are proud to oversee this collaborative benchmarking system for University engagement.

The conference included the Engagement Australia Excellence Awards for 2023 held at Sydney’s CommBank Stadium.  The winners across eight award categories showcased the very best of Australian universities and are listed below:

Excellence in Community Engagement:
The University of Melbourne for their exceptional Community Fellows Program.

Excellence in Indigenous Engagement:
The University of Melbourne’s Budj Bim On-Country Learning and Research.

Excellence in Industry Engagement (dual winner)
Deakin University, Centre for Humanitarian Leadership, and Innovation Central Perth, Curtin University, for their outstanding contributions.

Excellence in International Engagement
Monash Centre for Health Research and Implementation for their Partnership for Global Impact—an international, multidisciplinary, evidence-based, consumer-centric network for better health.

Outstanding Engagement for Student Learning:
The University of Melbourne’s Innovation Practice Program for their commitment to enriching student learning experiences.

Outstanding Engagement for Research Impact:
The University of Melbourne’s Students with Additional Needs (SWANs)/Abilities Based Learning and Education Support (ABLES) for their impactful research.

Excellence in Student and/or Alumni Engagement:
Griffith University for their MBA for Life program, exemplifying excellence in student and alumni engagement.

Outstanding Leadership in Engagement:
A special acknowledgement to Associate Professor Christopher Maylea of La Trobe University for their outstanding leadership in engagement.

Engagement Australia was also honoured to present EA’s Lifetime Achievement Award to Professor Sharon Bell at the conference for her remarkable achievements that have shaped the twin pillars of equity and engagement within our cherished sector over a number of decades. Professor Bell is an academic leader with over twenty-five years of leadership experience in the Australian higher education sector. She is an Emeritus Professor in the School of Culture, History and Language (2021- ) She was Interim Dean ANU College of Asia & the Pacific (2019-2021). She is also an Emeritus Professor at the University of Wollongong (2003-) and an Emeritus professor at the University of Western Sydney (2020-). Professor Bell’s significant contribution to tertiary education and advocacy for gender equity was formally recognised when she was admitted as a Member (AM) of the Order of Australia in January 2019.  Thank you and congratulations Sharon.

Finally, the conference also launched the 7th edition of Transform: the Journal of Engaged Scholarship themed Engagement: The Next Twenty Years Are Crucial!  This publication continues to report on the outstanding work of universities in the important area of engagement.  It is important that we continue to communicate the great things that are happening in this important area across our cherished sector and the current Issue does precisely that.

As the holiday season fast approaches, I hope you find time to relax, spend time with your loved ones and recharge the batteries.  My thanks to everyone involved in the conference and Awards ceremony for their hard work and commitment this year.  I would particularly like to thank my fellow Board members for their outstanding contribution this year in advancing the engagement agenda in this momentous year.

And as we look to the New Year which we know will continue to be one of great challenge and great change, we also see that there is great opportunity.  The University Accord, as evidenced at this year’s conference, has high ambitions around the twin pillars of Equity and Engagement and EA will need to be at the leading edge of this.  The Conference Welcome Reception took place in the Whitlam Institute on WSU’s Parramatta campus where we were reminded of the words of Prime Minister Whitlam more than fifty years ago which set the tone for the conference around these twin pillars:

“All of us Australians have to insist that we can do much better as a nation. We ought to be angry, with a deep determined anger, that a country as rich and skilled as ours should be producing so much inequality, so much poverty, so much that is shoddy and sub-standard. We ought to be angry, on our own behalf but even more on our children’s behalf at the destruction of our national and historical heritage.” (Whitlam, 1971)

As the peak alliance of engaged universities EA is committed to rising to the leadership challenge around the key symbiotic arenas of equity and engagement.  These are the right priorities for our time and they reflect the Australian psyche of ‘have a go’ and ‘fair go’ – for ALL!

Can I take this opportunity to wish you and your loved ones all the very best over the festive season.  I am looking forward to working with you, and for you, in 2024.

Kindest regards,

Professor Jim Nyland
Chair, Engagement Australia