Editorial: To the present and future Vice-Chancellors of UNSW

Welcome to the last issue of Tharunka for 2014.

In more ways than one, it’s the end of an era for UNSW, as we bid farewell to outgoing Vice-Chancellor, Professor Fred Hilmer, who will retire in early 2015 after spending nine years in the top job at UNSW, seeing his salary rise above $1 million a year in the process.

What is remarkable about his tenure at UNSW is that Professor Hilmer was appointed to the role with the business acumen of having been at the helm of a major Australian company, Fairfax, during it’s slow and painful demise, and yet nobody batted an eyelid at the thought of giving this man control over a leading Australian research university.

What is more remarkable still is that, despite Professor Hilmer’s lengthy tenure at UNSW, the fate that has marked Fairfax’s gradual movement towards irrelevance has not befallen this University quite so extremely.

In his time at UNSW, Professor Hilmer has presided over the increased corporatisation of this University, spearheading the move to push smaller, cheaper food vendors off campus in order to allow large chain giants to set up shop with increasingly unaffordable food prices. The irony, UNSW students have told us to date, is that to afford eating at these food outlets, they are forced to work multiple jobs which leave them with no time to have the lazy lunches with friends so artfully depicted in UNSW’s promotional material for prospective students.

To add to his many and varied lack of achievements, Professor Hilmer has repeatedly refused to take a stand on fossil fuel divestment, even as the Australian National University made international headlines with its decision to stop investing in energy companies which are slowly corroding our planet.

UNSW invests $50 million in fossil fuel stocks around the globe, $44 million of which is invested in Australian equities. Universities occupy a unique role as the progenitors of innovation and advancements in society, and UNSW itself is a world leader in renewable energy research. Continuing to invest in fossil fuels shows a contemptible disregard for the planet that sustains us and the research pouring out of this University proving the unsustainability of fossil fuels.

Perhaps most significantly, Professor Hilmer has expended more energy than any Vice-Chancellor in Australia, rivalling ANU’s Ian Young, in doggedly pursuing a political agenda of fee deregulation in the university sector. While the Australian Government has only advanced this proposition under Tony Abbott’s Prime Ministership, Professor Hilmer has been ahead of the pack, spending the better part of his nine years as Vice-Chancellor arguing for fee deregulation on every media platform that will take him.

If Hilmer has shown a contemptible disregard for the environment through his rejection of fossil fuel divestment, the same can easily be said about his contemptible disregard for students, who have overwhelmingly indicated time and time again that they do not want increases in university fees.

Professor Hilmer, we’re calling it now: you have been a selfish Vice-Chancellor, and this University will not miss you.

The incoming Vice-Chancellor, Professor Ian Jacobs of the University of Manchester, now has the opportunity to show leadership in shaping a truly collaborative University that undertakes real consultation with its largest stakeholder: students.

Professor Jacobs, the tenure of your predecessor has shown that UNSW is an institution that can weather the strongest of mismanagement storms.

We believe that you can do better.

You have the chance to make UNSW the leading choice of Australian students by bucking the groupthink of the Group of Eight universities, and implementing real change that affects generations of students. Fossil fuel divestment, fee deregulation and food affordability on campus are just three of the biggest concerns students share regarding their future. Consultation with the student body will easily unearth the rest.

The opportunity to shape a public institution of the stature of UNSW is not one that comes around often. Professor Jacobs, that opportunity is now yours. If you choose to listen, you will have 56,000 students, and millions more Australians, behind you. If you do not, your name will blend into obscurity on the long list of Go8 Vice-Chancellors who have wasted the opportunity to truly lead their universities in difficult times.

UNSW is at a crossroads. Which path will you take?

Over and out,
Ammy, Freya and Tina