Macquarie’s New Vice-Chancellor

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WORDS Adrian Hizo

After moving from one of the world’s best universities, Professor S. Bruce Dowton is settling into his new role as the new Vice-Chancellor of Macquarie University, officially taking over the helm from Professor Steven Schwarz earlier in Semester 2, 2012.

He brings with him a wealth of knowledge and experience in the fields of medicine and medical research as well as higher education scholarship that is sure to put Macquarie University in good stead for the future.

“Right now, in this point in the University’s history, it’s uniquely positioned to go to the next phase of major development. So the University has come a long way in the last few years and with more focused emphasis on research in certain areas, on re-organising the student experience and the learning and teaching programs. All those things are either done or in train to be done,” said Professor Dowton.

It is perhaps a mistake to think that a Vice-Chancellor merely sits in his office, detached from the rest of the campus. “My style of leadership is about engagement. To me, I’m a person that doesn’t want to sit in this office, and do my own thing down here, absent the connection with the people of the University. So I like to be engaged and out and about,” he said.

Guiding an institution as complex as a university is no simple feat. As a leader of an education provider and a business, Professor Dowton has to continually reconcile the conflicting values of education as a social imperative and as a business model. When the two collide, the results can be quite messy.

“The reality is that universities have to be run as businesses. It has a very large number of assets; it has a stewardship responsibility for financial assets from the government and from international students to be well run so that the core mission of the university, for teaching and research, can prevail.

[pullquote_right]The reality is that universities have to be run as businesses. It has a very large number of assets; it has a stewardship responsibility for financial assets from the government and from international students to be well run so that the core mission of the university, for teaching and research, can prevail.[/pullquote_right]

“You have to take the primacy of the role of the university to teaching, learning and research, has to be done in a context of business responsibility,” he said.

There is no denying that education has an economic function to play in improving our society. With the federal government’s transition to a demand driven system, uncapping the number of students universities are allowed to enrol, how universities should go about this in a sustainable fashion that ensures high quality education, only time will tell.

“I support the notion of universities playing a key role in having a well-educated and skilled and professional society.

“It is also, however, important to add on to that, that the quality of education provided by the universities has to also be at the highest level. So, that raises the [issue of] funding support for higher education and where that comes from. You know, the reality is that, I cannot, and would never want to, avoid the reality that I am where I am today as a result of being well-educated,” said Professor Dowton.

Currently, Australian higher education is facing a lot of changes caused by factors not entirely in the control of the University, and indeed, the country. All of these changes make for uncertain times.

“Things like the international students’ appetite to come to Macquarie University or to come to any Australian university have been changed by things like the currency exchange rate. That has a big impact on where families from other parts of the world can afford to settle their children.

“Recently, the US has reset their visa regulations for how easy or not it is to get in to the US as a student. And so that has an impact, you know, the student now has a broader choice, if they’re living in Southeast Asia or the Arabic Peninsula or South America, they have more options because it’s easier to get to the US than it has in the past.

“And then of course there’s the whole issue of online education, and where online education fits into a university like Macquarie.”

Of course, it is this online model of education Macquarie has seen in the past few years that have led to some grievances amongst students and staff. Indeed, the entire higher education sector has had to contend with the issue of online education for the past few years already. With students increasingly living digital lives, its effects on the quality of education are still open for debate.

“I don’t think there’s a single answer for every student. It’s not the same answer for every student shouldn’t be treated in the same way. There is no right and a wrong way for treating this across the board.

“It’s not just about putting up content online, that’s not pedagogy, that’s a library or a repository. Just because it’s called a university course, if it’s just putting up content, then that’s not helping the student to master the material.

“So there’s actually a lot of work going on and that’s being done about how [we] actually help people to learn online that still involves communication with the experts in the field through email or remote teleconferences or chatrooms or websites. That all takes time which costs money, to do all those things that provide a more robust pedagogy for students.

“We should not, as a university, evade the fundamental goal to be providing for opportunities for that communitarian dialogue… I’m not short changing the value of the online communication but I think there is also a time and a place for making sure that, at least for most people, making sure that they are in the same place at the same time.

“I have to say that I come out of a belief system that is about the importance of values and having a community and a communitarian approach to life. And I do worry about the notion of young lives that have no sense of community.”

This sense of community which Professor Dowton speaks so nostalgically about, for a university, filters through to fostering the best academic and non-academic experience for students.

“I think the academic experience is about making sure all of our courses and our approach to teaching and evaluating student performance is at a high quality level across the board… The PACE program is an outstanding example of how a university has provided something quite special in terms of providing a learning environment where it is all about engagement with the community, near and very far.

“I think in terms of a non-academic experience we’re working hard on this area. I think we’ve made good progress. We have progress yet to make and that is around ensuring as far as we can a seamless ride for the student… It’s how we can do everything we can both in the physical environment making sure we have an attractive campus, making sure that the amenities, facilities and sporting facilities and academic services and student services, all of those things that go into making a community are all organised.

[pullquote_left]I certainly appreciate the energy and efforts of staff that go the extra mile in terms of paying personal attention to students, treating students as individuals rather than blocks.[/pullquote_left]

“It’s also a sense that I would like to put forward that although it’s a big university with a lot of students, I certainly appreciate the energy and efforts of staff that go the extra mile in terms of paying personal attention to students, treating students as individuals rather than blocks. Many of our staff do this well, and I value that very highly in terms of the quality of the interface between the non-academic and the academic experience.”

With all of these complex, and at times conflicting, issues, it takes a certain kind of person to run a university, especially one as large as Macquarie.

“This is a very interesting and challenging role. It’s just that there are a lot of challenges to it and a lot to get through at the end of the day.

“[But] one can’t do [this] job and be successful without working hard. This is not a part-time job; it’s certainly a very, very full-time job. For me personally it’s a very rewarding role, being able to manage all the issues that ebb and flow and that come across the desk on a day-to-day basis…That’s what keeps the job interesting.”