Rufus Black wants university to focus on Tasmania’s needs

Rufus Black is a man of many parts. The vice-chancellor of the University of Tasmania is an ­ordained minister in the Uniting Church, a lawyer and a philosopher. He overcame dyslexia to become a Rhodes scholar and study philosophy at Oxford.

He has in the past turned his mind to conducting a wide-ranging inquiry into Australia’s cybersecurity and another into the Department of Defence.

Unlike many of Australia’s vice-chancellors, he believes too much emphasis is routinely placed on international university rankings. He prefers the university model that best serves the particular needs of its community and those of the nation, rather than the model specifically structured for rankings advancement.

“Teaching has to be central to the mission, at least to our kind of university,” he says.

“There are some very heavily research-focused universities in the world, where research may be the central mission. But our model in Australia is designed to ensure that we have a population that has the sort of opportunities that higher education creates, for as many people as possible, at as high a standard as possible.”

As the only university in Tasmania, the institution he began leading in March has a responsibility to cater for the needs of ­Tasmanians in education as well as in helping to stimulate the economy, he says.

“Whether it is to push back unique frontiers of human knowledge and understanding, whether it is to be ensuring their communities have equitable and prosperous futures, whatever that mission is, the more the mission guides (universities) rather than somebody’s external determined model of what the mission might be, the better,” he adds.

The 49-year-old faces an extraordinary challenge. In a region rife with educational and economic disadvantage he has to help reshape the University of Tasmania to make it as relevant as possible for all Tasmanians, including those — a relatively substantial proportion — who didn’t get as far as Year 12 in high school.

At a personal level, he fell in love with Tasmania a long time ago, he says. His family has owned a holiday house on the island for many years, and his twin daughters were delighted to move to Tasmania.

He doesn’t see the southern island as isolated, rather he sees its huge potential in having the best of both worlds: the connectivity of a metropolis and a huge, untouched wilderness.

“If you see the level of connectivity in Hobart, it feels like you’re part of the global network,” he says.

“But if you go to a remote part of the island, it is about as remote as you could get anywhere in the world.”

When he picked up the reins at the university, he began a conversation on whether UTas, as it is commonly known, should be a “place-based” institution, or follow a standardised global model.

“The very strong common ground emerging is being a more strongly place-based university that is certainly globally connected and globally excellent, but that takes its reference point from its place, is really a widely held common ground in our community,” Black says.

His conversation solidified around the needs of Tasmania and Tasmanians, which run deep in the university’s DNA, he says, and a concern for the wellbeing of the island and its environment are the cues for what its orienting concern should be.

“Our place-based model really focuses very much on what are the intrinsically important things that this island needs us to support,” according to the vice-chancellor.

“And that’s a lot to do with enabling its sustained and improved economic prosperity and addressing the educational inequality, the health inequality, and sustaining the cultural and environmental values.”

To get started on the big changes ahead, the University of Tasmania needs to eliminate a tangle of unnecessary bureaucracy and ensure speed and accuracy of communication, Black points out.

“There are many good reasons why simplifying university operations is a good idea, irrespective of whether you’re place-based,” he adds. “And that is to enable staff to spend more time doing the things which are really central to the life of the university. The more the university is simplified, the better, in terms of that.”

With the main campus in Hobart and smaller campuses in the island’s north, in Launceston and on the Cradle Coast in Burnie, the University of Tasmania has a substantial geographical footprint.

Yet the challenge to reach all Tasmanians remains enormous, largely because of the way Tasmania’s school education has been structured.

Many high schools only offer schooling to Year 10, and students wanting to study to Year 12 often have to travel further and study in different schools. This means many Tasmanians finish school at Year 10, leaving an education deficit that Black hopes to bridge.

Part of this will involve the wide-ranging rejuvenation of the university’s two northern campuses to attract local students.

A second element will be reaching those students who cannot physically get to the campuses. Technology, he says, is a vital tool for enabling the university to “make as much possible available to as many people as possible on the island”.

Nevertheless, the University of Tasmania does not aspire to become a large university, and ­personal engagement remains central to how it wants to continue to deliver education, Black ­reflects.

“Even where we are reaching out into communities beyond where our three main campuses are, one of the things we recognise is that we can’t rely on technology alone,” he says.

So the university has come up with a praiseworthy compromise.

Local libraries have been used as remote learning centres — with university academics on hand to help the local students navigate both the technology and the best ways of exploring their fields of study.

This might be, for instance, 10 or 12 local people of various ages sitting round a large library table, with laptops open in front of them, logged on to the library network, each researching their own particular choice of study across the internet.

An academic is present to answer knotty questions about online research and the best ways of finding certain data.

Black hopes to expand this project, particularly in communities with digital exclusion.

This is where he wants the university to grow, rather than in sheer student numbers.

The University of Tasmania now has 6775 international students among 35,004 students in total. The largest proportion of international students come from China, and Black says that although the university values them, he is keen to diversify to have a globally representative student population.

“If the island is to thrive,” he says, “it needs its future citizens to be very globally connected, and there’s no better way to do that than to be educated with people from around the world, and to have a global network so that as they continue, hopefully, their careers on the island, they actually have connections and contacts right across Asia but also the broader world.”