We get blasé about the power of ideas and knowledge, the power to understand what is going on around us, to see and shape our role in the good and the bad of what’s ahead. Likewise, we get blasé about the power of universities — the institutions designed expressly to harness that power, to nurture the growth of understanding in students and scholars, to embed the love of an expanding mind, and the expanding world view that so often goes with it.
We forget sometimes that universities are home to the big ideas, the breakthroughs, the sometimes revolutionary thinking that shapes our lives. I hardly need to start the roll call, but I will.
Universities are where Isaac Newton developed the laws of motion and the general theory of gravity, where Marie Curie discovered radium and its therapeutic properties, where Ian Frazer found a vaccine for cervical cancer, where Frank Fenner did the work that meant he could tell the world Small Pox was eradicated.
I don’t need to ‘dream up’ a future for universities post COVID-19, I see the now, and the now is extraordinary.
While most of us are utterly consumed by the blunt and relentless trauma imposed by the virus, university scholars and students are doing what they do best — attacking it from every angle. Right now, teams of Australian university researchers are united in pursuit of one goal: the defeat of COVID-19.
Scholars are identifying candidates for a vaccine; investigating the body’s immune response to the virus and new ways to test for it; finding new treatments while we wait for a vaccine and identifying those most vulnerable. Researchers are working with city authorities to monitor outbreaks by studying wastewater, improving the effectiveness of personal protective equipment, digging into what makes us follow social distancing guidelines, or not. Researchers are searching for answers to important social questions: how do people cope with the loss of a loved one when so many are dying, what can we do to stem increasing rates of domestic violence?
On the ground, universities have deployed researchers and students into local health services wrestling with the surge in demand and opened university accommodation for nurses and doctors who need it. Universities have set to work designing, testing and manufacturing face shields and ventilators. Fashion design students have made more wearable face masks, that are more comfortable for longer.
The only way to win is to fight on every front and that’s exactly what university staff and students are doing.
Researchers from all disciplines — philosophy to political science, economics to agriculture — have directed all their expertise, all their decades of accumulated experience, to the fight of our lives. Economists are building models to protect us from the worst of the recession, artificial intelligence experts are building new industries and new jobs. Universities are deeply embedded in parts of the communities we serve. Right now, we are all struggling to do our best in a world that is difficult to comprehend.
“We all have a duty to harness all our resources — intellectual, economic and emotional — and put them to best use.”
Working together, drawing together all our strengths, has seldom been more important.
Of course, the virus will leave us in a different place — universities and the communities we serve will all be changed. The way we conduct research, the way we teach, the funding policy landscape will all be different. But the fundamental objective of the university won’t. Take the extraordinary power of the human mind, our insatiable curiosity, and use it to ensure we are active players in our future. That’s what I like to dream about.
Catriona Jackson is Chief Executive of Universities Australia, the peak body representing Australia’s comprehensive universities. She joined the organisation in 2016. Her 34-year career includes roles as Chief Executive Officer of Science and Technology Australia, senior adviser to a federal government cabinet minister, director of government relations and communications at the Australian National University and a journalist. Ms Jackson chairs the Advisory Board for the ARC Centre of Excellence for Nanoscale BioPhotonics and is a member of various government committees.