Innovative inner-city campus not fencing in students’ potential

Brimming over with enthusiasm, the vice-chancellor of the University of Technology Sydney lets fly with a rapid-fire paean on the ­institution’s modernity, achievements and sheer potential. Attila Brungs has been in charge of the uber-modern university for four years and he’s “loving it, absolutely loving it”.

Adjacent to Central Station in inner-city Sydney, and housed in towering buildings (including the Frank Gehry-designed “paper bag” business school) set around a small quadrangle, UTS has grown spectacularly in the past few years.

A $1.5 billion architectural overhaul eliminated large old-style lecture theatres in favour of smaller and more technologically aligned learning spaces and, by ­design, removed any existing walls around UTS to open up the campus and keep the university connected with the neighbouring business community. The ground floors of the campus buildings house either business or community groups, to keep the interconnection flowing.

“UTS is an innovation university,” Brungs says. “We did surveys recently and 40 per cent of our ­students told me they didn’t want a job. They wanted to create their own job as an entrepreneur with a startup. So in the past six months we’ve created 150 student-led startups.

“One of the great things about being around here, which is why we’ve developed the campus like this, is this is at the highest concentration of startups in the country. We’ve deliberately built this to make this innovation precinct thrive.”

Brungs says connecting UTS research with industry is of prime importance at the university, and it’s a modus operandi that has “paid off handsomely”.

UTS researchers are now working with one of the biggest healthcare providers in the country to develop thought-controlled wheelchairs; others are working on robotics to assist the aged with routine tasks (getting out of a chair, or taking a shower); others are exploring the multifaceted and constantly changing field of new media; yet others have worked on a detailed model for the world’s sustainable future.

Deep industry connections account for the university’s heavy use of casuals for teaching (one of the heaviest in the sector and ­occasionally compared to the ­hiring practices favoured by ­McDonald’s). “We do have un­ashamedly more casuals,” Brungs says. “Take for example our law faculty. I think 89 per cent of the casuals in the law faculty are professional lawyers: a number of judges, ­professional barristers, solicitors. We want to make sure our lawyers are taught by the best.”

This extensive use of practising professionals to teach is one of the secrets of the university’s success, he says. Another is a sharp focus on a limited range of fields.

“We don’t try and do everything,” Brungs says.

“We are unashamedly a university of technology, for example. We have seven faculties, but we don’t have philosophy. We don’t offer medicine. We focus on what we do offer and try and do it as best as we possibly can.”

He says the university has ­focused on the impact of its ­research and that focus has changed the nature of UTS teaching. Because of these, and almost by default, UTS has “rocketed up the rankings”.

“From the nether regions of 400-500, we’re now the only university other than the Group of Eight in the top 200 ranked universities in the country,” the vice-chancellor says with a touch of pride. Although universities usually maintain a laser-like focus on rankings, there is one school of thought that considers the entire rankings system to be a profit-driven and largely artificial construct. But Brungs won’t buy into it.

“I won’t say they’re irrelevant,” he says. “And any vice-chancellor who said rankings were entirely ­irrelevant probably wouldn’t be telling the entire truth.”

Rankings, he points out, can be useful to attract international ­students, and international and domestic staff — “and they give you cachet with the government, which is helpful to have”.

Sydney-born, with a name ­deriving from German and Hungarian ancestors, Brungs grew up the eldest of seven children, including “lots of wonderful sisters”, which perhaps contributes to his unusual use of “she” as a default pronoun. He and his siblings had a sports-mad Hungarian grandfather who wielded the sabre with aplomb. Brungs inherited his grandfather’s passion for fencing, at which Hungarians have historically excelled.

“I love fencing,” he says, “it keeps me going.”

A bright child, Brungs did well at school then went on to study chemistry at the University of NSW, worked in industry for a ­little while, won a Rhodes scholarship and went to Oxford, where he did his doctorate. After a period working as a “very, very, very junior academic” at Oxford, he moved to the private sector where he learnt about the world of business and management with the consulting firm McKinsey. It was an invaluable experience, he believes.

“I was a scientist,” he says. “My parents were scientists. But I couldn’t always understand why the best science, that actually helps people, didn’t always work in the business world. McKinsey showed me how the world of business actually works.”

After realising he had the skill and temperament to get the best out of people, Brungs moved away from research and into the world of university management, a decision he does not regret.

“The reason I love my job, and feel so honoured to have it, is I set the conditions so people far brighter than me can really flower with their research,” he says.

“I actually weighed that up when I was moving through my career. I could continue to do my own research or, as I moved into these roles, with no false humility, if I help 20 other people do better research, that will have a whole lot more impact for society than me doing my own.”

His contract has been extended, so he will remain a fixture at the UTS until at least 2024.

Brungs brought an active social conscience with him to the top job, and UTS now has an energetic and socially conscious humanitarian agenda, along with the ­belief that the university exists for the “broad societal good”. Former NSW education minister Verity Firth is the executive director of social justice at UTS, he says, leading the Centre for Social Justice and Inclusion and overseeing the “social impact framework”.

Worthwhile projects on the go are as various as looking at how technology can help close the gap for indigenous Australians while reaffirming their connection to the land, to helping community work organisations with building apps or getting set up in the cloud.

About three in 10 students (30 per cent) at UTS are international students, and Brungs ­believes that’s about the right ­proportion. “We capped it at 30 per cent, don’t want any more,” he says. “It’s very important to have it at about that level.”

In conjunction with one of the highest English entry standards in Australia, the university’s international students provide an “international flavour”, he adds, without overwhelming certain classes.

A broad international perspective is considered a must at the university. “We send about 35 per cent of our Australian domestic students overseas during their time at UTS,” Brungs says.

“So nearly 70 per cent of students have a different world view. You need to have your assumptions challenged at university; you need to have different ways of looking at life.”