Torchbearer for western Sydney aspirations

Barney Glover has embraced the manifest and multifold challenges of running a huge university, split into several geographically separate campuses, in the poorer half of Australia’s largest metropolis.

“It’s one of the most exciting vice-chancellor jobs in Australia,” he says, noting that Western Sydney University had a mission to help the region grow and prosper, as well as recruiting children from disadvantaged homes so they can make the most of their potential.

Unlike the big, research-intensive sandstone universities, with their wealthy alumni and significant donors, WSU educates the less-privileged, providing a lifeline that can make all the difference to students’ futures.

Sixty-five per cent of WSU’s 45,000 students are the first in their families to get a university education. More than 30 per cent of the university’s domestic students don’t speak English at home. Twenty-six per cent are economically disadvantaged, so WSU has the highest proportion of poorer students of any Australia university, Glover says.

These WSU students, many of whom have to commute for long distances to get to school and work, regularly contend with eye-watering traffic congestion and poorly serviced public transport routes, especially at peak hour.

Educated by a university that spans campuses in Bankstown, Campbelltown, Hawkesbury, Lithgow, Liverpool, Nirimba, Parramatta, and Penrith, as well as a location in Sydney’s city and one at Olympic Park, many WSU students juggle university and work commitments and do their best to keep their heads above water.

Historic buildings and lavish ceremonial events would not always be in keeping with these students’ drive to keep going and striving and working and learning.

So it’s fitting that the only touches of sandstone in WSU’s sweep of utilitarian campuses, it seems, are some decorative elements in the Female Orphan School in Parramatta.

Built in 1813 and the oldest three-storey building in the country, the school is on the WSU grounds. It houses the Whitlam Institute and serves as a reminder that western Sydney had a thriving community not long after the First Fleet arrived.

“We do have areas of educational disadvantage,” Glover says. “We have a responsibility as a university of this region, and an anchor institution in western Sydney, to open up opportunities, provide pathways and address educational disadvantage. But equally, and importantly, we’re a voice about the importance of our region.

“One of the things I’ve noticed over the last five years is the narrative about this region is changing. I’m hearing a much stronger story about the strength of our region. It’s my responsibility as VC to strongly promote that positive aspect of the region, and I’m very keen to do that.”

Glover grew up in Geelong, in rural Victoria, and is still a passionate supporter of that city’s AFL team. He went on to teach maths in Victorian high schools before venturing into higher education at the then University of Ballarat, now part of Federation University.

From there he moved on to Curtin University, in Perth, “a great Australian university and a great success story”. He then moved to the University of Newcastle as deputy vice-chancellor, “a great privilege”. Soon he moved again, to Charles Darwin University in the Northern Territory, where he picked up the reins as vice-chancellor.

“It was a great honour; I spent great five years there,” he says. “I think I achieved a great deal with the team at the university and the Territory government.”

His three sons peeled off along the way, staying in Perth, and they are now working adults with families in Western Australia.

Glover, meanwhile, moved again, this time to western Sydney, starting work as WSU vice-chancellor on January 1, 2014.

He’s committed to the job and the region, he says, and last year his contract was renewed for another term. He lives with his partner in the inner west of Sydney, and most days commutes against the traffic to work, a journey that takes about 20 minutes.

“I was able to relocate to western Sydney at a moment in time when we saw the announcement of the new airport at Badgerys Creek, the investment in infrastructure, and an opportunity for WSU not just to find new ways to collaborate but also to reposition our campus network as part of our big western growth project,” he said.

“I think that’s been a hugely exciting part of being here for five years.”

With a doctorate in applied mathematics from the University of Melbourne and a particular interest in maths education, Glover is naturally a cheerleader for science, technology, engineering and maths, the field that has had so much attention from politicians and educational leaders lately.

Yet he doesn’t exclude humanities from his priorities list either, noting the enduring impor­tance of humanities and social sciences.

“I’m a mathematician. Any scientist, mathematician and engineer looking at the current focus on STEM would be pleased to see this being recognised as core to the changing nature of the world we live in, in terms of the jobs of the future,” he says.

“In a world as complicated as the one we live in today, we need to have skills not just from the STEM disciplines but more broadly if we’re going to address those challenges — the geopolitical challenges, the multi­national and multilateral challenges.

“We need to nurture the humanities and social sciences just as strongly as we do the STEM disciplines.”

Glover adds that WSU is keen to promote its strong humanities faculties, and refers to the “STEAM” grouping (science, technology, engineering, arts and mathematics — which must surely encompass almost everything that is taught in universities).

WSU now educates about 5000 international students, about 14 per cent of its total student enrolment, which is quite low in a sector where the average international student percentage in universities is nudging 26-28 per cent. Glover has plans to remedy that.

“We have an aspiration to lift that to 20 per cent of our load over the next five years which is achievable,” he says.

WSU has been the only game in town for aspiring western Sydney students for many decades, but change is afoot. Four universities — WSU, Newcastle, Wollongong and the University of NSW — have banded together to propose developing a joint campus, a “multiversity” at the aerotropolis near Badgerys Creek in the next five to 10 years.

Blacktown Council, for its part, wants a university to set up shop in the Blacktown CBD and has asked for offers of interest. And the NSW Government this week announced it was working with the University of Sydney on plans for a second campus, part of a health, education and research precinct in western Sydney.

Meanwhile, WSU is concentrating on establishing multi­storey vertical hi-tech campuses at various strategic points across Sydney’s west — last year in Parramatta, this year in Liverpool, in Bankstown in 2021 and likely in Penrith in the future.

As with many other universities across Australia, WSU has been tackling the freedom-of-expression debate head-on, with an academic senate project underway to assess the current WSU position and recommend potential changes.

“I think it’s a vitally important issue,” Glover says. “It is important that we have lively, engaged civil discourse about difficult and challenging topics, there’s no doubt about it.

“Universities should be a place where that’s possible, and it’s done safely, and where new ideas can emerge that can contribute to society and its wellbeing.

“It’s a fundamental role of universities and we have to nurture that very, very carefully.”