09.07.2020The University of Melbourne

What contribution is your organisation bringing to the economy and society during this COVID-19 pandemic?

More than ever, the world needs what great universities uniquely contribute: education and research at the highest level, a spirit of partnership with and in cities, communities and nations. I am proud of how the University of Melbourne and our research partners have contributed to the pandemic response, and also how our enormous campus-based teaching and learning enterprise, involving tens of thousands of students and staff, has shifted online virtually overnight, keeping students on course to successfully complete their degrees.

As with the wider city, the pandemic has tested the University of Melbourne, but it has revealed agility and resilience across our community. Universities are enduring institutions – this experience brings new appreciation for the adaptation and perseverance this actually requires. The determined contributions from colleagues, students and partners to front-line efforts to combat the pandemic has brought a shared sense of purpose and commitment to our community that inspires me.
The travel restrictions introduced at the pandemic’s outset meant an initial focus on supporting our international students, both those already in Melbourne and those unexpectedly remaining in their home countries. International students are a vital part of the city community. So working with student leaders, consulates, the City of Melbourne and others was important to ensuring their wellbeing and continuing studies where possible. There were significant efforts to transition to a ‘virtual campus’ model to enable all of our students to continue learning at home, and maintain the experiential qualities of university life across a far more distributed community.

Since the very start of the pandemic, many of our researchers have formed part of national and global response efforts, which remain a critical presence on-campus. The Peter Doherty Institute for Infection and Immunity, a joint venture partnership in the biomedical precinct between the University and the Royal Melbourne Hospital, was the first laboratory outside China to successfully grow the virus from a patient sample; this was important because it has supported accurate investigation and diagnosis of the virus globally. The Institute has since contributed to building virus diagnostics, developing new therapeutics, undertaking clinical research and advising on the public health response by governments. Several faculties of the University have supported this work at the Doherty.

Researchers at the University also partnered with clinicians at the Royal Melbourne Hospital, the Austin and Western Health to identify and address emerging personal and protective equipment (PPE) challenges. This work includes a 3-D printed face shield that can be manufactured without elastic, filling an urgent supply chain gap; a filter guard that enables clinicians to wear powered respirator masks under their surgical gowns; and a personal ventilation hood designed to eliminate transmission of COVID-19 from patients to health workers. Colleagues at the Faculty of Medicine, Dentistry and Health Sciences also developed a free online course for clinicians and critical care nurses on conducting lung ultrasounds on COVID-19 patients, addressing a shared and pressing issue for health workers contending with this novel coronavirus.

Many of our academics contributed their expertise to national and international dialogue and decisions. COVID-19 Roadmap to Recovery convened 100 experts across a range of disciplines from Group of Eight universities to chart the options and implications of Australia’s pandemic response and recovery, co-chaired by Professor Shitij Kapur, Dean of the Faculty of Medicine, Dentistry and Health Sciences. The University was also active in convening broader public conversations, with Professor Kapur chairing a six-part series of online panel discussions throughout the pandemic.  And economists at the Melbourne Institute: Applied Economic and Social Research have been charting how Australians are navigating the effects of the pandemic through its Taking the Pulse of the Nation weekly survey, which has been covered extensively in the news media and is a go-to resource for policy makers.

What can government and private sector do to assist you in your contributions post COVID-19?

The most important thing is to recognise the crucial role played by universities in maintaining and advancing education and research across a host of vital fields. Universities, like many other sectors, are hard hit by the pandemic financially; and particularly through closure of borders to international students. Although the situation is evolving, latest estimates of the pandemic’s financial impacts on our University alone are around $300 million annually for the next three years.

For a city like Melbourne, ordinarily home to 200,000 international students, with international education its largest export, the impact will be profound. This is well understood by Australia’s capital city mayors, who advocated for important policy measures to see these students safely return. For those students already in Melbourne, many of whom lost part-time work they relied on because of the pandemic, the City’s immediate practical support – for example through food vouchers at the Queen Victoria Market – has been critical to supporting their wellbeing.

The University’s community of donors, alumni and staff has come together to support students and provide vital funds to support the continuation of research. More than 1,000 donors have generously given to two dedicated funds: the COVID-19 Emergency Student Support Fund and the COVID-19 Research Response Fund. This has provided more than 5,100 students with financial assistance to cover costs associated with learning from home, lost income and unanticipated expenses resulting from travel restrictions. Vital research projects have received support, including the production of the personal ventilation hoods I mentioned earlier. This generosity has also directly supported pandemic research and trials undertaken at the Doherty. To date, contributions to students and researchers through the COVID-19 Emergency Appeal and towards research in the Doherty sum to more than $17 million.

Though early government support for the higher education sector was limited, some recent responses recognise the challenges universities face and their critical role in contributing to recovery. Most recently, the Victorian Government has pledged $350 million to invest in capital works and research partnerships across the Victorian tertiary sector, while federal support for the cultural sector will be important to many colleagues and partners in the cultural and creative industries.

Many people in Melbourne’s private sector understand the important role universities serve in the life and economy of the city and the world. Many within Melbourne’s business community are alumni or have other University links, or are indeed students in our professional courses. In moments like these, where decisions made now will shape the course of years of recovery, their support and advocacy is vitally important.

What do you feel the future holds for Melbourne and your organisation on our road to recovery?

I believe the University will emerge stronger than ever as the world recovers from the pandemic, because the University if full of determined people – students and staff alike – who believe in the mission we serve, of advancing great education and research, across the disciplines.

I’m actually optimistic at the prospects both for the city and the University of Melbourne. We know this is very much a global city, and one with a deep sense of connection and community. I’ve found this to be true in my time here, and I think this sense of internationalism and connection to place will serve the city well in navigating the times ahead.

At the end of last year, our University Council had just committed to a ten-year strategy for the University, which is titled `Advancing Melbourne’. It puts our connection and partnership with place and community , anchored by the location of our main campus within the City of Melbourne, front and centre in our mission to deliver education and research of enduring value and impact. It emphasises that students will be at the heart of everything we do. It commits us to exercising global leadership in tackling the big issues of our times; through convening, through partnering, and through bringing together the incredible depth and breadth of knowledge and expertise that exists within the academy.

The summer’s devastating bushfires and the emergence of the pandemic have only confirmed our commitment to this strategy. I’m confident that we will continue supporting whatever adaptations are required  in educating students to the highest standards, researching across a wide range of disciplines, and partnering with industry and community to advance the best interests of city, state and nation. One of the obligations, and I think virtues, of stewarding a university like ours is to continue to adapt to change, conscious of the prevailing conditions, but with a steadfast commitment to making a positive impact for the long term.

Vice-Chancellor, Duncan Maskell – The University of Melbourne

Sign up for Committee for Melbourne’s Communiqué

  • *Mandatory fields