An interview with Mark Scott, USyd’s new Vice-Chancellor

Honi Soit speaks to Mark Scott about online learning, enterprise bargaining, and the future of the University of Sydney.

As the first non-academic Vice-Chancellor in the University of Sydney’s history, ‘Professor’ Mark Scott comes into the role ahead of a tense Enterprise Bargaining period, amid continuing government attacks on higher education, and with the consequences of a pandemic to deal with. Having previously overseen the ABC and the NSW Education Department, Scott has experience with job cuts and government hostility. But a university is a different beast entirely. Three editors and two media managers sat down with Mark Scott last week to discuss his plans and the challenges facing the uni as he takes the reins.

Maxim Shanahan: As a non-academic, you come from quite a different background to past Vice-Chancellors. How do you think your past experiences prepare you for this role?

Mark Scott: While I have not been an academic, I’ve got three degrees and worked for a year at a university in the US. I’ve worked in and around education and with knowledge workers for a long period of time. And I have also run large, complex, public-facing institutions that have been undergoing change. So, I think when I was selected by the Senate for the role, it was a recognition that I bring some background that will be valuable to the university. I don’t think any chief executive is employed as a complete solution to every need the organisation has, but I’ll be working in partnership with the senior team here, with the academics, hopefully engaging closely with students, and playing my part to strengthen and secure the future of the University. 

Maxim Shanahan: Given you’ve been involved with institutions going through change, what specific qualities do you have that are required at this time in the University’s history? 

Mark Scott: The one thing I think is very clear is that big institutions like universities are experiencing significant ongoing change. We have changes driven by COVID and changes in policy and regulatory settings that are coming from the Government. But also, I think we can ask the question: what’s the impact of technology going to be on teaching and learning and research? We can think about the need to be better at partnering with others who bring in capability and expertise that we don’t have. And my media background reminds me that those who have been powerful, arguably wealthy oligopolies for a long period of time, can find their operations targeted by new players. So I think we’ve got to manage the changes that are put on us now, but recognise that, in the next five to ten years, there’ll be significant disruption in the sector, and history would suggest that if you aren’t alert to that — if you are complacent — you are uniquely vulnerable to being targeted. 

Juliette Marchant: Over the past few years there’s been a shift in how government, business and the public talks about universities; a shift away from the university as a site of knowledge and inquiry towards a more vocational base. What do you believe the purpose of the university is going into the future?

Mark Scott: We’re creating knowledge here, and some of that knowledge will be applied knowledge, while other types of knowledge will transform the world decades from now. But also, we are transforming lives through the teaching and learning that takes place here. The University of Sydney has an outstanding reputation for preparing young people for work, but it’s vital that we understand that our responsibility isn’t just to a first job — it’s to a life that will be based around learning. I think that the rapid changes we see taking place in workplaces and with technology means that now more than ever, we need to be equipping lifelong learners. Not just the knowledge that students get through their classes, but the capabilities and the skills to be able to take on new challenges, master new technology, and come to deal with complex and emerging circumstances effectively. One of the things we have to do in the current political environment is to effectively be able to communicate those achievements so that they are widely understood. The benefits of the work that takes place in this university does not simply accrue to the researchers, teachers and students; they apply across our entire society. We need to be telling the story of the great public benefit and the great common good that emerges from the work that takes place at this university.

Juliette Marchant: COVID has forced universities to move a significant amount of their teaching online. Do you believe that the digital university is the future of higher education, or is the campus still central to university experience?

Mark Scott: Firstly, I want to pay tribute to our teachers and our students, for how quickly and effectively they migrated to remote learning when COVID struck. The speed and the quality of the transformation was remarkable. The fact that so many of our international students have stayed with us through the disruption is a tribute to the quality of teaching that can take place online, and the quality of, and reputation of, a degree from the University of Sydney. I am a great believer in the campus experience and I’m keen to work hard to allow international students to get back and our domestic students to be here. I think the university experience isn’t just what happens in classrooms, but it’s being part of a vibrant learning community. And if I reflect back on my days as a student at Sydney, it’s both that I remember to be equally important. 

When I think about how COVID challenges us, though, it’s not about whether we have in-person transactions in a classroom setting, it’s about how we use these in-person forums in conjunction with technology. It has been proposed that interactions in classrooms are more for consolidating knowledge that’s being imparted and seeking the applied aspects of learning. As I speak to our experts about teaching here on campus, they’re not saying ‘less face-to-face,’ they’re challenging how best to use that face-to-face. In an era where we have the ubiquity of technology, you expect that traditional model to be challenged, and I think that’s a good thing. But campus life and face-to-face interaction will continue to be a vital part of what we’re offering here at the university.

Claire Ollivain: You’re entering your role just as Enterprise Agreement negotiations with union staff are commencing. What does the University hope to achieve on its side of these negotiations?

Mark Scott: With the COVID disruption and policy changes from Canberra, it’s been a demanding and exhausting time. There are easier times to discuss an industrial negotiation. I want to create an environment here where everyone can do their best work; where our researchers, teachers and professional staff bring their energy, their intelligence and their experience, and we create an environment where they can flourish. What we also have to do is be able to deliver a solution in terms of wage outcomes, and in terms of working practices, that are sensible and sustainable in the context in which we are operating. Part of the negotiation as well is to explain that, in what I hope is a constructive and professional way. So, you know, we are in early days, there’s a long list of claims from the union, that’s to be expected. The University will respond to that in due course, and I’m hopeful that we can deal with this professionally and get it behind us and get on to doing the real work. And I do want it to be an environment where people feel respected, and feel that they can get on with what it is they came to do at the University.

Claire Ollivain: One of the points of concern that’s been raised by the NTEU in their log of claims is the trend towards casualisation in the sector. How do you plan to address this in upcoming bargaining?

Mark Scott: I understand those concerns about casualisation. And I think if you’re a young career researcher or teacher, and you aspire to have a career in higher education, then you can look at levels of casualisation with concern. So we plan to deal respectfully with the log of claims as it has landed, and we will look to think about how it might be possible to provide greater security. But that’s what the negotiations in the coming months are all about. I don’t want to pre-empt those discussions, but I understand those concerns, and we want to engage with them as best we can. The University, through the hard work of our staff, has managed the COVID complexities well to this point. But we also should not understate the challenges that still lie ahead for us. We’ve kept international students well, which is a tribute to the hard work from people here. However, our pipeline for international students has no doubt been affected by COVID, so I am concerned that the full financial impact of COVID on us may not be seen yet. The uncertainty of our future revenue is something that we’re going to have to talk about in the negotiations.

Claire Ollivain: The University is proposing to do away with the longstanding 40:40:20 model (where 40% of academics’ time is spent on research, 40% on teaching, and 20% on administration) in this year’s EA negotiations. A similar proposal was defeated in 2013 after extensive strike action. What is the motivation behind reintroducing this proposal?

Mark Scott: Well, I’m not going to go into all the details on the University’s proposal, but nearly every university in the country has more flexibility around teaching and research contribution than the 40:40:20 model that exists here at the University of Sydney, I’m informed. I expect that, under any circumstances, the majority of our staff would end up with a 40:40:20 result. I suspect some flexibility here is valuable, to allow some to be specialist teachers, others to be specialist researchers, and for us to be able to ensure that a ‘one-size-fits-all’ approach across an industrial agreement may not be the best outcome for our researchers, our teachers and the University as a whole. I know there are differing views, so let’s have that discussion.

Maxim Shanahan: Returning to the topic of policy challenges, what do you make of the new Job-Ready Graduates Package funding model, its fairness and the government’s overall recent attitude towards universities, which has arguably been characterised by a bit of hostility?

Mark Scott: I don’t under-estimate how concerned politicians and policymakers are in Canberra about the skills shortage that this country is facing. If you add the disruption to migration that COVID has brought as well, we really could see significant areas where we simply do not have the skilled staff that we need. So I can understand the government wanting to use all levers they can to try and encourage people into areas where there might be projected skill shortages. Though, as Michael Spence clearly articulated, the University had significant concerns with the structure of the Job-Ready Graduates scheme; we’re not sure it will work precisely the way that it was intended. One area of concern we have is how the new funding requirements take away money which traditionally has been allocated to support research at the university. 

That’s another question: how do we support research properly? Research which will be central to the future of this country —  our international competitiveness, the way we support industry, and the way that we improve everyone’s quality of life. But research is chronically underfunded. Even the research grants we receive don’t fully cover the costs. We’ve used international student income to fund research, that’s not possible now. So more conversations need to be held. One of the things I want to do is spend time on the ground in Canberra talking to political leaders from all sides of Parliament, to advocate for what truly is in the national interest, which is a robust research sector, well funded in the national interest.

Maxim Shanahan: You come from a humanities background yourself. What do you make of the government’s recent attitude towards humanities education? 

Mark Scott: I’m a strong supporter of arts degrees. Many of the things that employers implore that they want from graduates — communication skills, collaboration skills, critical thinking, creative thinking — are all skills that emerge from a good arts degree and a deep understanding of the humanities. I sometimes think that arts degrees can suffer from an almost tabloid shorthand and dismissal. That is unfair to the substance and the rigour that underpins that work. So I actually think there’s a strong argument that says arts degrees are very well tailored to developing the capabilities that we know employers want. I don’t support a policy that attempts to push people away from arts degrees. I’m happy to stand up and to be a supporter of the contribution arts graduates make.

Maxim Shanahan: The closure of borders has challenged universities’ over-reliance on international student revenue. There also hasn’t been that much financial assistance from the government to counterbalance that. Do you think that universities need to re-evaluate their ‘business model’ in the face of continuing uncertainty? Is this possible without a re-evaluation of the government’s role in universities?

Mark Scott  There’s no doubt that most Australian universities, in light of declining financial contributions from federal governments over several decades, have moved to recruit more international students. It’s an income stream that has clearly shown some vulnerability through the recent disruptions. But I would always anticipate international students being an important part of the fabric of a great international university like Sydney. If Sydney aspires to be in the top tier of global institutions, it would require students from around the world coming to our campus, to teach and to research. So, yes, like all other universities, we’ll need to think through what the implications are for our business model.

Juliette Marchant: Do you have a final message for students coming into Semester 2? 

Mark Scott: The first thing I’d say right now is hang in there — this too will pass. This kind of disruption we’re facing affects people in different ways, and we have good support infrastructure on campus for people who are struggling, particularly with mental health issues that can emerge. I’d really encourage our students to reach out and take advantage of those services if they need to.

I think the university should feel a great sense of responsibility towards its students. Yes, you give us money through fees, but really, the most important thing you give us is three or four or more of the most important years of your life. You could be doing many other things, but you decide to spend those years in the community here at the University of Sydney. I want to do all I can to ensure that it is a life-transforming opportunity for you, not just for what you do afterwards, but because of the people you meet, the knowledge you acquire, and the skills you develop. And I hope you have a continuing relationship with the University of Sydney for the rest of your lives.

I wanted to be on campus as soon as I started because I wanted to spend time talking to students. But soon, we’ll be back and I look forward to that very much indeed. And I hope students, if they see me walking around, will say ‘hi,’ and will give me a sense of what their learning experience is like here in Sydney.

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