The Peter Høj interview

Interview by On Dit Editors

Credit: Adelaide Now

On Thursday 18th February, the On Dit team were invited to interview new Adelaide University Vice-Chancellor, Peter Høj. We asked him about his plans for the uni, the possibility of a merger, his much-discussed ties to the Chinese state, and much more. Presented here is the interview in its entirety, as it happened.

Having served as a Vice-Chancellor for 15 years at different universities, what keeps bringing you back to the job?

One of my favourite quotes is from Nelson Mandela, who said that one of the most powerful weapons you have to change the world with is education. When you get as old as I am, you get to reflect on what you think is meaningful, and I agree that education forms the basis of progress and democratic stability. So far as a Vice-Chancellor, I’ve graduated 127’000 students, and most of those students will have a more satisfying and productive life because of that education.

It’s clear that universities in Australia are having a tough time — both COVID-induced and because of their own special set of circumstances. I want to make a contribution to this state and education infrastructure, and that’s why I’m doing this.

As UofA Vice-Chancellor, what do you think will be the most crucial areas of change to make UofA a supplier of what you describe as “comprehensive graduate qualities”?

I’ve been reflecting on this a lot. I think what we have to do in respect of students is we have to start with the learning outcomes, and we have to think about what the student has to take away from their time at UofA.

Students have become really strong independent learners. When I say this, I’m talking about students who can inform themselves with the relevant facts, and this comes before making a proclamation to others.

The world in which I grew up was one where you went out and got, say, a Bachelor of Engineering, and you could have a pretty good job forever. That luxury is not open to this generation, so they need to be continual learners. Students need to know what they’re missing from their kit bag, learn independently, and apply it to their personal success. And if they do this, they ultimately have the power to look after their loved ones, and hopefully realize that the greatest satisfaction is to be able to give something back to society.

So, if you work back from that, we have to say to our academics, “Are you sure that we’re designing our learning experience and activities to optimally grant those learning outcomes?” I would hope the university makes a switch to a new learning model which realizes students who come into this university come with a totally new way of communicating and new skillsets which are mostly IT-based.

One of the most addictive things in life is to have intelligent company. It enriches you. The most important things I learned in university were during co-learning with my friends rather than passively sitting in a lecture theatre. So, I would hope that we find a new way of learning which is done mainly through peer activities, and then I would like to think students, perhaps to a greater extent than they see now, acknowledge that we staff members take a deep interest in their success. We focus so much on research that we probably need to relook that balance. We should be looking at what we want to achieve, rather than saying, “We’ve always done it this way, so it must be right.”

You said at the annual meeting of the university community that while you personally support the idea of a merger, it’s still up in the air. Mergers generally give you more capital mobility and make it easier to allocate assets, but also make it easier to cut staff. Can you say unequivocally that staff will not have their jobs cut if a merger does occur?

If you assume that the revenue base is the same whether you merged or not, whether you have two separate institutions or a merged institution, you will still employ the same number of people. So, I don’t think you will necessarily see a reduction in staff numbers. But what you will do for example is — let me use the example of the University of Queensland. Its revenue is the same as the three South Australian universities together, and it’s still the fifth largest university of Australia.

But what does a merger mean? It means you pay one Vice-Chancellor, not three. You pay one deputy VC, not three. The idea is that you don’t spend as much money running yourself, which means you have more money to employ staff that are student and research-facing. So, you put more money into the academic purpose. It would be true that over time that you should be able to have a changed profile, so some staff categories would look smaller and some would look bigger, and it would be a transition. But for the sake of argument, let’s say you merged the three universities. Someone’s going to lose their position as Vice-Chancellor, right? But if you have the same student number, you wouldn’t think that the number of lecturers would go down. The hope would be that what you save on that administration through scale, that could be spent on more university research and funding.

So, I don’t think that the number of South Australians employed by universities would change, but the nature of the job would.

You’ve acknowledged previously in an interview with the UQ magazine Contact that because of the decline in government funding for universities, higher education is becoming more reliant on international enrolments for its survival. What happens if international enrolment rates don’t return to pre-COVID levels? Would you personally fight for more government funding? Would you look at other revenue streams?

What the government did do for us last year, which we’re very appreciative of, was that it allocated $1 billion extra in research grant block funding. That meant that universities such as the University of Adelaide got $42 million more. So, if we didn’t get any compensatory cashflows like a renewal of that $1 billion grant, then effectively we would not be strongly enough resourced to be a research-intensive university. Unless we find a new means of getting international student revenue. What we learned during COVID is that there is still a large cohort of students engaging through online means and, while they may prefer to have a 3–4 year lived experience in Adelaide, with such a high-cost economy here compared to countries like India and Indonesia, they can’t access it.

If we move to an online-based delivery for these students, they will be able to spend much more time in a low-cost jurisdiction and still get an education. What I think we need to do is pivot more to an online-based experience, and if that works, then we can stay where we are, but if that doesn’t work, then that’s where a merger is something that has to be looked at. But we could also decide to just be a different institution. It will be an institution that may not be as globally recognized, and therefore students may have to think whether their social capital is therefore diminished if they want to get a job outside of South Australia. There will be a proxy measure of how good a graduate you are simply through the standing of your institution.

Do you accept now that in light of renewed concern about China’s human rights abuses in Hong Kong and Tibet, and accusations of genocide against the Uyghurs in East Turkistan, that the relationship you fostered with Chinese government-linked institutions like the Confucius Institute was not appropriate for someone in your leadership position?

The first thing to say is that we would all be against human rights violations. Wherever they happen and whatever your commercial relationships are, we should always protest against that and I’m as much against human rights violations as anybody else.

In terms of the engagement I had with the Chinese government, I should firstly say that the university I ran was not the university with the greatest number of Chinese students — it was number five in Australia. You will remember that under the Gillard government, there was a very strategic positioning by the Federal government and there was the white paper about Australia in the Asian century. And everything in those days was geared toward a greater interaction with Asian countries, and China looms very large in that piece. So, there was that degree of encouragement.

What also happened was that in Australia we had 14 Confucius Institutes. We have 13 now. And at that stage it was felt it was much better to have a seat at the table than Australia having Confucius Institutes and having no influence over what was expected of them. So, I joined the governing body of the Confucius Institute, the Hanban, to have a seat at the table and to put our views forward. Those views were like this: if you operate in a foreign jurisdiction, you have to play by that jurisdiction’s rules. You have to think about Australia’s place in the world and ask, would we not want to be part of the United Nations because other countries are part of the UN? We want to be, because if you want to change things, you have got to engage. That’s why you have diplomacy.

So, engagement was always seen through the lens of what was in Australia’s best interests, not to serve another nation. So, I don’t agree that I’ve done anything else than be totally aligned with government policy and expectations, and indeed when I became a member of that governing council, I wrote a letter to the Foreign Minister Bishop and said this is what is going to happen. And I got a letter back from DFAT’s China division saying we know this and it was positive letter. So, this was the way things were moving.

You will remember Australia hosted the G20 in 2014, and Xi Jingping was invited to Canberra to speak to a joint sitting of parliament. I have held UQ sessions where former PM Abbott was very supporting of having joint sessions between UQ and the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, and asked me to read a letter there on his behalf. But it’s true now the world has changed, and it’s true we have to see the relationship through a more challenging geopolitical prism. So, I don’t accept that I did anything wrong. As soon as the Foreign Influence Transparency Scheme (FITS) Bill came in, I resigned from the governing body because the legislation required me to do so and I followed the law.

What can you tell us about the Confucius Institute of UQ’s founding agreement which gave the Institute a final say over teaching standards?

It would be wrong to say they had any say over teaching standards, they might have in those days — and that agreement was signed in 2009, well before I came to UQ — but the world looked very different. We wouldn’t sign that agreement today, and if you go on the website, you will see the current agreement which is very similar to the one University of Melbourne has. It is clear that all the things that people were rightly concerned about when they looked at an older agreement through today’s lens has been changed. The world has changed.

If the disciplinary hearing against student activist Drew Pavlou is something you had no involvement in, do you not think that you owed a duty of care to one of your students to support him when he faced threats against his life for expressing his point of view?

We did. Drew, whenever he was on campus, was offered constant security around him. And he was offered a lot of student counselling as well, but we said when you’re on campus we will give you security. I think he didn’t want that, but it’s not true to say the university didn’t support him.

If you state that you supported Drew Pavlou, how is that in line with the lack of reprimand against Adjunct Professor Xu Jie for his comments supporting all “patriotic behaviours” against Pavlou?

Xu Jie made comments which people have said were directed against Drew, but he did that in his capacity as Consul General. I think it’s appropriate that if commentary were made, that it were made by people from the diplomatic corps, and Foreign Minister Payne did exactly that.

Were there any discussions within the UQ governing body about removing Xu Jie’s honorary staff appointment as Adjunct Professor?

What UQ has done is observe this is a practice that has been running since 2005, and of course it’s not limited to Chinese diplomats. The Japanese Consul General has also been offered that, the Swiss, other ambassadors… that was the idea of the School of Languages and Cultures who wanted the students to get access to people who really know about languages and cultures from other jurisdictions. So, that practice was never seen to be problematic. But UQ has said now there will be no further appointments of people currently employed in the consulate corps. I should also say the appointment of Xu Jie was an appointment I wasn’t involved in, so it didn’t require my approval.

But could you have not removed him? We understand this is standard practice at the time to have diplomatic corps in these roles, but just for his comments, even in the capacity as Consul General, could you not have asked him to leave in the same way your government asked you to leave the Confucius Institute?

The reason I had to leave the Hanban because there was legislation to say that a person like me, who served as a principal executive officer in the federal government, could not do so without declaring on the FITS Bill they are working in that capacity. It’s got nothing to do with what I’d do, it’s the legislation that says you have to do that, same if you’re a minister. Had there been a legislative requirement to say you could not have a foreign sitting diplomat as an Adjunct Professor, of course they would be removed. But there was not that requirement.

Could the University have decided to remove the Consul General? They possibly could. Did they decide to do that? No. It goes toward what I assume was the fact that a comment which is alleged to be directed toward a particular person was made in his capacity as Consul General and that the Foreign Minister dealt with that in her own way.

So, you didn’t think there was anything to be gained by removing Xu Jie from that role, in terms of any kind of positive ramifications for the welfare of student activists?

As I’ve said before, we worry about positive welfare. We offered security for that student, and support.

Sharna Bremner, the director of the organisation End Rape on Campus, described your tenure at UQ as “one of the worst in the country” when it came to dealing with complaints of this sort. She alleged that a UQ student dropped out because the university failed to discipline the tutor who committed this act, and his contract was then renewed and he went on to re-offend. Can you give us a comment about that?

Vice-Chancellors don’t get involved in disciplinary processes and have no power over it. If complaints are made against a student through another student, there are mechanisms through the university’s registrar that provide rules and policies, and the Vice-Chancellor is never involved in that. Just as I assume that the PM can’t phone up the High Court and tell them stop what you’re doing, there are reasons why the VC is not involved. At UQ, if a student enters that disciplinary process and it’s found in the panel’s view that someone has been wronged and a penalty is given, then the student can appeal to the Senate Appeals Committee, and the Vice-Chancellor is not involved in that either. So, it’s absolutely true that I’m not involved in student disciplinary matters. And of course, the current Chancellor of UQ has said the same.

As for the notion that UQ is one of the worst in the country, the data doesn’t point to that at all. When Universities Australia and the Human Rights Commission published their report, the incident rates at UQ were among the better despite having 3’000 students staying in colleges, which is one of the areas where you see the greatest risk of sexual misconduct.

You would have to ask Sharna whether she has complained to, for example, TEQSA about how UQ has handled a certain case, and if so, what TEQSA found.

Note: On Dit was not allowed to publish an excerpt from TEQSA’s findings into UQ’s reporting practices. The following statement was provided after the interview, and corroborates what was read by the Vice-Chancellor:

“The University of Adelaide is not privy to matters between a regulator and another university. However, on the specific inquiry regarding these complaints, it is our understanding that TEQSA’s compliance assessment has closed, no adverse findings were found against UQ and that the university was assessed as having met its obligations under the Threshold Standards in relation to the matters raised.”

In the interest of transparency, would you commit to disclosing the annual number of sexual assault complaints made at Adelaide University?

It is absolutely essential that we all try to diminish and eliminate sexual assault. It’s totally unacceptable. I applaud people who are working hard for us to be much better in that regard. I think if we are certain that our number are collected well and reflective of what happens, I think we should publish them. I think it should be possible to collate the right numbers that are reported amongst students. The only caveat would be to ensure the numbers are right, because daylight is a very good disinfectant. If we don’t know what is happening, we can’t see whether we’re making progress. So, in principle, I think numbers should be published.

Why did UQ under your tenure accept a $50 million donation with the Ramsay Centre which is described as “a politically-motivated body seeking to preserve Eurocentrism in the already Western-dominated field of social sciences”?

First of all, we have absolute faith in the quality of our students, and their ability to critically evaluate what is presented to them. We also have to sign off a curriculum which is not designed to celebrate but inform about the progress that has been made to Western civilisation, and also the missteps that have been made. It is also a process through which there was huge debate at UQ.

It’s true that a lot of people don’t like it, but it’s true that a lot of people do like it. It’s about being able to have insight being able to have a debate within a lawful manner, but also about being exposed to things which we don’t agree. What we did was to have a debate with lots of submissions, and then we held a secret vote of the academic board, at which I was not present, and they voted yes because they could see it’s an absolutely quality, thoughtful curriculum which allows students to study on a scholarship. It also gives us the chance to appoint 10 – 12 staff from the humanities, which is a sector that is struggling to employ new people, as it is not funded pretty well.

With regards to the Ramsay Centre’s purpose being not to to celebrate but to inform, can you reconcile that with comments made by former PM Tony Abbott who believes the Centre should not just teach about Western civilisation, but teach for it?

If we had not managed to get a curriculum which was made to inform, not celebrate, then it never would have happened. It’s possible that former PM Tony Abbott would have liked a Ramsay Centre with a curriculum and approach that celebrates Western civilization. If that were the case, it never would have been funded. There’s no reconciliation between what we’re doing and what one member of the Ramsay Centre Board wanted.

The Enlightenment was a huge step in civilization where we went from putting leeches on people to understanding and developing medicine. But we of course know that many First Nations people have suffered immeasurably due to the excesses of Western civilization. So, all that has to be out there.

Did the University of Adelaide at any point threaten to diminish funding to the Adelaide University Union if the President did not release a statement in support of your appointment?

No. That would be outrageous. That would be incredibly stupid and incredibly stupid for the University. But as I said, many claims are being made and the claims are not true. Obviously, this is a very large organization and from time to time there will be individuals that do the wrong thing. Ideally, no one should do the wrong thing. When somebody does the wrong thing, whether a student or staff member, the culture at the university will be judged by how we handle that.

Do you have sympathy with students at the University of Adelaide who are sceptical of you, sceptical of the University Council, sceptical of administration at large because of the last Vice-Chancellor’s actions, and how will you seek to rebuild that trust?

I totally understand why both students and staff would have lost confidence in senior leadership, because clearly what happened was wrong and was probably handled wrongly. When a similar complaint arose at UQ, the first thing I did was go to the Crime and Corruption Commission, and say a claim has been made, and we’re going to investigate it in this particular manner. Up front, what should happen when something like this happens is that you should go to the relevant authority, and that didn’t happen and was not handled particularly well.

How do we change that? I don’t think words will change it. People don’t listen to what you say, they see what you do. We have a lot of work to do in this regard.

Weren’t some of the same people who handled that incorrectly the same people that got you into this role? Do you think there should be another referral to the Independent Commissioner Against Corruption about what was happening at our university behind the scenes?

I understand ICAC has looked at it, and that the report has not been made public. I am pretty confident that the University is looking at itself and all the ICAC recommendations. We’re working very hard at that. There are recommendations that have come through the public extract of the report, and the university has accepted all of those and is working to implement them after staff consultation. There has also been a report into views on staff culture, and there will recommendation that need to be rolled out from that too.

I acknowledge things haven’t been handled optimally, but I think for the benefit of all of us now having made that strong acknowledgement, we need to move forward and students will be better off if we do that.

Vice-Chancellor, thank you for your time.

Adelaide University student magazine since 1932. Edited by Ivan Jankovic, Stasi Kapetanos, Isobel Moore, and Michelle Roylance. Get in touch: onditmag@gmail.com