An Interview with Vice-Chancellor Andrew Parfitt
For those of you out of the university loop, Professor Andrew Parfitt is your Vice-Chancellor and President of the University of Technology Sydney. Promoted from his position of Provost and Senior Vice-President in November last year, he became the fifth Vice-Chancellor of UTS since its establishment in 1988. Vertigo sat down with the man appointed to steer the university away from the tumultuous fallout of the global pandemic.
V: Tell us about your life in the days before you went to university. Where did you grow up, and what was life like there?
AP: I grew up in Adelaide. None of my family had been to university, so it was only really at school that I was exposed to science and maths and all of those interesting things. It generated an interest that ultimately led to studying engineering at the University of Adelaide. I did electronic engineering because – and I’m showing my age here – we didn’t have mobile phones or personal computers, so microelectronics seemed to be the way of the future.
V: Can you remember having any ambitions at that time? Maybe getting ahead of it all, becoming the next Bill Gates?
AP: I think, like most students, you take one step at a time. The first thing that I wanted to do was explore what a professional career at university would look like. [The ambition was] simply getting there and then starting to think about those sorts of impacts: the capacity of technology to change lives and the huge opportunities for Australian businesses.
When I graduated, I joined the Defence Science and Technology organisation, and that’s where I started to become interested in research. It became evident to me what research could achieve, so I ended up going back to university to do a PhD. Having decided after four years that I probably wouldn’t do any more study,I spent another four years at university (laughs) and then had the opportunity to embark on a research career as an academic.
V: Your career in higher education started as a lecturer at the University of Adelaide, and now three decades and three universities later, you’re the Vice-Chancellor and President of UTS. What drew you towards tertiary education in the first place?
AP: Yeah, I was on a research path for a good part of my career. I spent time at CSIRO working on things like radio astronomy, technology, and space technology, then went back into academia as Director of the Research Institute. But then the opportunity arose to become head of faculty – this was at the University of South Australia – and I realised that what gives me the most satisfaction as a leader is bringing together both the education and the research components.
I think that’s what characterises university; not only is it about creating the next generation of professionals, it’s also about creating the next wave of knowledge that they can use.
V: Was your background in engineering one of the motivating factors behind joining the University of Technology?
AP: There were two factors. One, clearly, is the strong focus on what technology can do for communities. Not just the science and technology itself, but how it’s adopted and what difference it can make. What’s perhaps less evident is the very strong commitment UTS has to social justice and making an impact on communities. Those two elements together are a really powerful aspect of UTS’s identity that really attracted me here as provost.
V: Aside from Vice-Chancellorship, what would be your career highlight so far?
AP: Look, there are many. At the University of Newcastle, they have a student speaker talk at the end of the graduation ceremony – it’s usually an honours student or university medalist – and they often tell the stories of what they’ve managed to do while studying: all the volunteering and industry opportunities and so on. But you also hear the stories of overcoming disadvantages.
Something that sticks in my mind is listening to a young Indigenous woman who had just graduated as a lawyer. She spoke about how, when her father had been at school, he was told to sit in the back and be quiet and how she promised herself that should be different. She sat up front, she asked the questions, she worked hard, and here she was: a university medalist in law. You hear those stories of life transformation and it really makes a difference to you.
V: Now that you’re in the role of Vice-Chancellor, what’s your personal vision for UTS?
AP: Well, that’s an interesting question because I moved into the Vice-Chancellor role from the Provost role, having been one of the key architects of the current university strategy. I feel really strong ownership of the UTS 2027 strategy elements that we’ve got. My vision is that we are a global institution with a social impact to make. The university’s reputation is important to me because that then is an asset for recognised UTS graduates. Finding the way now, as we emerge from COVID-19, to continue to grow that vision is a priority for me.
V: What is UTS 2027? How does it tackle issues such as growing UTS as a global powerhouse university and environmental sustainability?
AP: The fact that we are a public university is a really powerful statement that we are here for public benefit. Making a global impact is something that can happen through our research activities and the way in which they change our communities, or through graduates and where they operate on a global stage. We are a university that doesn’t stand aside from those partnerships and important relationships with the business industry.
To your second point, at the heart of that is the question of, ‘Where do we believe technology can really have an impact?’ Sustainability is one of those fields. Environmental sustainability goes through our teaching, our research, and our operations. I hope that that becomes a real asset for people who engage with us, whether it’s our industry partners or students who want a specific and differentiated experience in going to the University of Technology.
V: How important is UTS going to be to the Tech Central, and how important is Tech Central going to be to UTS?
AP: UTS is one of the anchors of Tech Central as it is the precinct that surrounds UTS. That development is really positive for us because it will bring together businesses with whom we can engage. Geography is important for that sort of engagement, having people on your doorstep to work with, identifying problems, creating solutions, and so forth. The growth of Tech Central here, right next door to us, offers UTS students a terrific opportunity for industry-based connections and research partnerships.
V: On top of what is currently being done, do you think more can be done for diversity at university?
AP: We have to recognise a lot more commitment to the importance of equity and diversity. What obstacles we have to overcome is not a short term game. We need to fundamentally look at ourselves and ask, “What do we do that prevents people from participating in the careers and professions that they aspire towards?”
I want to be part of a profession that reflects the diversity of our communities.
So, as a university, if we don’t do that, if we don’t work with partners through the education system to make it real, we’ve lost a terrific opportunity to deliver that aspiration that everybody deserves access to, and the benefits that it brings to all professions.
V: It was reported that in the 2020-21 period, UTS faced close to 500 staff losses. Obviously, the circumstances of that year were completely unprecedented, but are there any plans to refill these positions once revenue returns to pre-pandemic levels, and, what’s being done currently to ensure greater job security for the current staff of UTS?
AP: Let me wind back slightly. So across a period up to 2020, we had grown our academic staff numbers in total by 400 staff positions out of about 2,000 staff positions. Then, the global pandemic hit. Institutions like universities were hit with financial constraints that we have to navigate for the long term. So, of the 500 job losses that you pointed out, 370 of those were people who voluntarily indicated that they would take the opportunity to leave at the time. It is regrettable, but we have to have job losses to manage the finances.
I’m optimistic about the power of universities and education, and its importance means that we will still see students from across the world choosing to come to Australian universities. Over time, yes, we will be able to build, but we’ll choose to build in areas that are future-looking areas and take the opportunity to ensure that we are offering what we need towards careers in the future, not necessarily things in the past.
To the other point about job security, I am absolutely passionate about making sure that we support careers for our staff, whether it’s academic staff in their development, careers as a teacher and research, and of course professional staff. But we’ve got a lot of diversity in the workforce. We’ve got people who work for us from industry who don’t want a full-time job with us. We’ve got students who work in labs demonstrating, marketing, and so forth. So we’ll always have some diversity in that space across the workforce of employment arrangements.
V: We’d love to hear more about what you mean when you talk about the careers of the future.
AP: I think academic roles have been changing over time in many ways. It’s not about us, as academics, to simply convey knowledge to students. It’s about curating an environment where learning can be practical and support the concept of learning to learn for a lifetime. People like myself might have spent decades learning in a particular way, and that’s going to change over time. That’s what I mean by supporting careers within the university, particularly for academic staff.
How do we ensure that our staff have skills and the students have career paths within the university? Well, the UTS 2027 program has elements of looking at what work will look like in a changing environment. The careers graduating students are pursuing have changed over time and will continue to change.
We need to continue to prepare students for what the workforce will look like when they graduate, not like what it did five years ago.
Questions the people would like to know
V: Do you have any personal interests outside of work?
AP: Like most academics, I suppose I really read a lot. I enjoy reading history. I also trained as a classical guitarist when I was much younger. There was one brief moment where I might have considered music as a career, but I think having music as a hobby and engineering as a career was probably the right choice.
V: Any book recommendations?
AP: For people interested in the development of science – this might be a little old now – but there’s a book written by a series of eminent people, not only scientists but also philosophers and commentators, curated by Bill Bryson. It’s called *Seeing Further* and it was put together to commemorate the 350th anniversary of the Royal Society. So if you want to get a sense of what science is and what it isn’t, how it progresses, and so forth, it’s fascinating to read.
V: Have you seen *Spider-Man: No Way Home*?
AP: No, I haven’t. No.
V: More of a DC fan?
AP: No, not really. I don’t really connect to that. I think you might need to translate it for me.