A Conversation with the Chancellor: An interview with Catherine Branson

Interview by Felix Eldridge

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Chancellor Catherine Branson AC QC

Of her many prior roles, Catherine Branson AC QC was a former judge of the Federal Court of Australia, former President of the Australian Human Rights Commission and former Deputy Chancellor of the University of Adelaide before becoming Chancellor in mid-July. I sat down with her to ask her some questions about her past career and her plans for the University.

After spending many years in the judiciary, why did you decide to join University Council?

I went from the judiciary to the Australian Human Rights Commission where I was President for four years. That involved working in Sydney, although after living for about 14 years or so there I had moved back to live in Adelaide. When I retired from the Human Rights Commission, the then Chancellor asked me whether I might be interested in serving on the Council. This University has always been close to my heart. I studied here, I taught here as a tutor in the Law School, I served on the Faculty of Law back when the University had such things. I just regard it as a fundamentally important institution for our state and I was honoured when asked if I would serve on its Council.

You mentioned in another interview that respectful debate was welcome but that freedom of speech is not just about being able to say nasty things about other people. What did you mean by this statement?

I’m troubled about the fact that something as important as freedom of speech, which is fundamental to a democratic society and absolutely critical within a university environment, seems to be underestimated and even, in a way, damaged by people who want to talk about the freedom to offend or insult people. It seems to me that it ought to be thought about and debated on a much higher level of intellectual debate than that.

You can’t have good academic debate without the chance for people to express different and conflicting views. You can’t run a democratic society properly if people’s voices can’t be heard. Democracy just doesn’t work well unless everybody can participate in debate about the issues that are critical to their society. That means not only the views of those who are influential or powerful, but those who are on the outskirts of society, those who are marginalised, those whose voices ordinarily don’t carry the same weight. It’s a little similar in universities. You need everybody’s perspective to be heard, everyone should have a chance to respectfully debate the critical issues of the day and these are the critical aspects of freedom of speech. Speech is not absolutely free, we all know that. The law has imposed restrictions on what we can say. The restrictions tend to tell you something about the society in which you’re currently living. So, in our state for example, once it was against the law to use obscenities, essentially it isn’t anymore. I think the only terms that have the capacity to cause offence these days are racial epithets. But those aside, poor language is no longer sought to be controlled by the law. Defamatory statements however still are. Different societies take different views towards blasphemy. In every society there are restrictions on what you can say. We should have complete freedom of lawful speech unless there is some really compelling reason to the contrary.

You also mentioned that the recruitment of international students must be reconsidered in light of our changing relationship with China and other countries. What in your view should the university’s long term policy be towards international students?

My sense is that international students bring a lot to our university. Of course in the past they have brought their fees, which have been very valuable because funding of Australia’s universities is a real challenge, but they brought much more than their fees. They brought their cultural diversity, their different life experiences. Our university is greatly enriched by the diversity that they’ve brought to us. I feel it would be a great loss if we lose that great diversity. But I think it is very likely that the numbers of foreign students in Australia will significantly diminish and we must find ways of funding our universities without so much reliance on the fees of those foreign students. I don’t think we can expect to be free of Covid-19 in the short term and also the geopolitical climate is uncertain and we need to know where that is taking us.

You also mentioned that a potential university merger may be back on the table. Given the successive failures of such discussions before, what gives you the impression that a merger would be successful this time?

I haven’t got a fixed view but I think a merger is possible, perhaps even likely. The South Australian population is just not large enough to support three first class universities. But I think it’s a decision that should be made after considerable community debate, not just talk among university leaders. We need students, governments, alumni, we need the entire university community to be involved. We need to review what is the best way to structure higher education in this state. For example if we reach a fairly broad consensus that two universities rather than three might be preferable, then I would have thought that the next step would be to consider what would those universities look like. My personal view is that this state does need what the University of Adelaide currently provides it with. That is, a world-class university, one of the best in Australia, consistently ranked in the top one percent of the world, with all the global links that a university of that kind can establish and maintain. I think for that reason, the loss of the brand of the University of Adelaide would be regrettable. That doesn’t mean that we can’t talk about some restructuring of higher education in the state. But if it were to decide that we wanted one university of that kind, we would have to work out what the characteristics of the second university would be. We would have to ask ourselves if it would be a similar kind of university or a different kind of university? I don’t have all of the answers, but I think that this is the way to go. We should first consider what is the best for the state and if we wanted something different within the universities, we should then consider what that should look like. Thinking that ‘this part of the university should go here or there’ should be the end stage of a merger discussion, not the beginning.

You said that you were determined to preserve as many staff jobs at possible. Could you elaborate upon what the university is doing to protect jobs now and also in the future, and whether government support would be required to protect further jobs and maintain teaching standards?

We know that we’re facing big losses. The Acting Vice Chancellor has been very open about this in a way that I entirely support. We know that there are very significant losses this year in comparison with 2019 and that next year there will be more. Senior management and many others in the university are putting a lot of effort into working out where savings can be made and how can costs be held down. Capital works have largely been put on hold. We have been negotiating with the NTEU and staff around a package to save jobs. We are working out new ways that we can bring income to the university such as shorter and different courses. But at the end of the day, we have to make the savings that we need to keep this university operating well. The NTEU negotiations, which have been supported by staff, will dramatically reduce the staff losses. I’m enormously gratified that staff are willing to consider initiatives of this kind and it reflects well on their understanding of the situation that the university faces, and probably their affection for the university; the fact that they are willing to consider reductions in their remuneration in order to help save this university and the jobs of their colleagues. I’m unable to say whether the measures that we’re trying will be enough in the long run, we need to get further into this new environment in which we will be operating in before we will really know if more is needed. I have a strong fear however that without additional support from governments that some jobs may have to be lost and I would be sorry for that. We don’t yet have the full Commonwealth revised package for funding for universities. We’ve had Minister Tehan’s announcement of the funding for teaching but we’re waiting for the Commonwealth’s approach to funding research. We also need to work out how to fund those necessary capital works that are needed to support our excellent teaching and excellent research.

Reflecting upon your time as a student, what advice do you have for university students today?

Value your time as a student. It’s not just a learning experience, it’s also a time of social experiences of other kinds. You’ll make friendships at this time that will probably stay with you for life. Both the social and intellectual side of university is to be valued. Once you move into full-time employment, your life will be much more constrained, so enjoy the life that you have here. It’s a privilege and one that I look back on with great fondness. I would also suggest not being too structured in your approach into what happens to you after university. Be ambitious for yourself, but don’t be foolhardy. Be ambitious to seek to work in areas of genuine interest to you and where you will think you will find pleasure as well as a good job. Also, value those close to you such as family, colleagues, workmates, because you tend to get out of organisations, workplaces, institutions, proportionately what you put into them so it’s worth investing in your friends and family and the community that you’re part of.

In the wake of harassment allegations against Justice Heydon, what advice would you give to female graduates seeking to enter the legal profession? Further, do you have any comment about the ICAC findings against the former Vice Chancellor?

I’m extremely hopeful that these recent allegations against Justice Heydon will lead to a real culture change within the legal profession. Like other hierarchical professions, in fact a little like universities that are also hierarchical, there is always a risk of abuse of power by those at the top. As I have said in my official statement regarding the former Vice Chancellor, we need a culture of respectful treatment of everybody within a profession, a workplace or a university. We need a wide acceptance of the fact that everybody has an interest in preventing any other person being treated badly, whether by being harassed or by being disrespected in any other way so that people feel comfortable to step forward and say when they witness something that’s unacceptable. In this university, I want students, staff, members of administration, everyone, to be empowered and willing to step forward and say that at the University of Adelaide, we treat people with respect. And this isn’t just because it’s inappropriate and wrong to treat people disrespectfully, but because I know from my own life experience that I’ve been able to do best whatever I’ve been required to do, whether it’s being a student or being a young solicitor of barrister or judge — that you are at your best where you feel respected and where you feel welcome. So, it’s actually in the self-interest of the institution as an institution to make sure that everybody feels respected and welcome because that’s how you’ll get the best performance out of everyone. And because we’re a world-class university, we want to recruit staff and students internationally. We want everyone to know that this is a place where everybody, wherever they come from, whatever their background, is welcome and respected because that will help us attract talented people and retain talented people.

The Chancellor’s full statement about the Independent Commissioner Against Corruption’s findings about former Vice Chancellor Peter Rathjen can be found here:


What are your top long-term priorities for the university?

I want to make sure that this university remains a first-class, world-class university. I want it to be attractive to the best students, to the best teachers, researchers, administrators, so that it can continue to do what it’s done since 1874 in serving this state by providing excellent graduates. As Dr John Bray, the first Chancellor of this university, used to say: “the central mission of the university was to impart knowledge and to generate knowledge”. He was referring to teaching and research at universities. I want that to remain a central feature of this university. However, I’m very conscious of the importance this university plays in the economy of the state. We will particularly seek to work with industry leaders. We have industry advisory boards across our program of teaching and research. They help us understand what is needed to advance this state’s economy. They help direct our research to the areas that are really needed. So I expect to see that this university remains a critical player in the success of South Australia. Perhaps more than anything, I hope to have as a legacy that this university has a lasting culture of respect for all individuals. That people want to be here because they know that here they will be respected and welcome and they can do their very best work, either as students or as members of staff.

What are some challenges facing universities globally, how can the university best address these challenges?

Universities are facing a number of challenges, some of which are financial. When I went to university, there were about three percent of the young people of this state who might be expected to go to university, would actually go to university. The figure now is over thirty percent. So the impact upon budgets of governments now that we teach such a high proportion of our population is substantial. The days where the governments could be expected to meet the full costs of university education probably won’t return, so that’s a real challenge for most universities in most countries.

We face more competition than before. We have to ensure that the qualifications that we offer and the teaching that we do remain as that which our societies and communities require. For example, online learning is very widely available and was unimaginable of in my day. We have to be able to show that what we offer can’t be obtained online, that we offer the extra value of an on campus experience and that the on campus experience must have a value to those that we want to attract here.

Another challenge is that when I was a young person you were expected to qualify and practice in one profession for life, whereas these days people could take three, four or more professions over their working life, so a valuable education to them is one that enables them to be flexible and move from one workplace to a very different workplace. This is one of the reasons why I value the humanities quite highly, the skills of critical thinking and analysis, analysing arguments to see where the weaknesses are, understanding society, community and history, being able to engage in critical argument. These are all valuable skills and I think that we underplay the significance of the humanities at our cost. When this university was founded one of its stated objectives was to provide leaders for the state based on their education and not just their privilege or their wealth. It’s a very important objective. Education is a great tool of social justice and I would hope that this university continues to provide it, not only to the privileged, but more critically, to those who have not enjoyed privilege, at this university.

What is your favourite thing about this University?

There are lots of lovely things about this university. It’s a community that’s developed over many years. I love it when I go to functions and there are people who are in their 90s who are here because they feel connected to this university and there are people who are 18 who are still full of the joy of coming here for their first year of study and there are people in between those two extremes and that’s great. I love this campus, it’s a relatively compact campus, elements of it are stunningly beautiful. You can see the jacarandas flowering in front of Elder Hall and being able to walk down to the river and pass through the lovely Kuarna Learning Circle. The Hub is great fun and I love to come down here and buy my lunch and find students and staff sitting down adjacent to each other. It’s great to have a campus right here in the heart of the city. I love the memories of my time here as a student. It has a great law school from which many great lawyers have come from.

When I was in Sydney as a Federal Court Judge, I constantly met young people, mainly lawyers but not all lawyers, who all got their educations here and were absolutely thriving. Of course we hope for a time where our economy will be large enough that our bright young people won’t move interstate but it was gratifying to see how well they stacked up against their colleagues who had studied in other states. We produce some of the finest graduates that this country produces and indeed the world produces and this is something we should be truly proud of.

Written by

Adelaide University student magazine since 1932. Edited by Nicholas Birchall, Felix Eldridge, Taylor Fernandez and Larisa Forgac. Email us at onditmag@gmail.com

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