Young V-C David Lloyd makes way for merger

David Lloyd may wear the mantle of the youngest vice-chancellor in Australia. Now 44, he was 38 in 2012 when he was appointed to lead the University of South Australia.

He had never run an entire institution before; in fact, he’d never even been to Australia. A big new job on the other side of the world: he seized the opportunity and hasn’t looked back.

Now he is in the existentially difficult position of possibly engineering his own removal.

Earlier this year the universities of Adelaide and South Australia floated the possibility of a merger between the two institutions: one an esteemed “sandstone” university founded in 1874, the other a business and industry-oriented university founded more than a century later in 1991.

Lloyd and colleague Peter Rathjen, the vice-chancellor of Adelaide University, have opened a discussion on the merger’s pros and cons, and they will present a report to the two university councils later this year, thereby potentially doing at least one of them out of a job.

While much has been said on both sides of the argument, for his part Lloyd appears to remain resolutely neutral on the subject.

“For me it’s an opportunity to explore whether the benefits are worth the cost and impact,” he says in his soft Irish lilt. “Let’s give it a good kick of the tires. Is there a business case; is there a benefit case? Does it stack up?”

Lloyd has worked and studied in both types of university.

A fifth-generation Dubliner and the first in his family to go to university, Lloyd chose the new, thrusting, business-friendly Dublin City University to study undergraduate chemistry — mainly because it was five minutes from his family home and his mum thought it would be easy for him to get home for lunch.

His father, by way of contrast, wanted his son to study at the venerable Trinity College, centuries old, and the alma mater of luminaries such as Oscar Wilde, Samuel Beckett and Jonathan Swift.

But DCU it was, and Lloyd went on to earn his doctorate in medicinal organic chemistry from the new university before finally moving to the hallowed Trinity for work as a post-doc, examining the possibilities of computer-aided drug design.

“I liked the idea of doing it rationally; drug discovery was very hit and miss,” he remembers. “We knew enough about proteins and the human genome at that stage to do it in a more intelligent way.”

Then, in rapid succession, Lloyd went to Britain, joined a pharmaceutical start-up, watched the bubble burst, returned to Trinity as an academic, was promoted to associate dean aged 31, then dean two years later, and finally bursar, always interested in industry-university collaboration. Then, still under 40, he was approached by a headhunter waving an application form for the job of vice-chancellor at UniSA.

“I’d heard of Adelaide because I was a Formula One fan, so I knew where it was,” he says. “UniSA was every stamp of DCU. It was the same institution I went to. Little bit younger, but in that space, and I thought, yeah, I’ll go and have a look because I could see there was massive potential in it.”

In August 2012, his appointment was announced. “The rest is history, I just got cracking,” he says.

His appointment as vice-chancellor has since been extended to 2022, and he has put down roots in South Australia. He lives by the beach in Adelaide with his partner and their cats, and the children from his first marriage often come to Australia from Ireland to spend time with him: “It’s home, you know?”

At the same time, he has kept up his connection with satirical science fiction writer Terry Pratchett. He first nominated Pratchett for an honorary doctorate at Trinity, then Pratchett awarded him a doctorate from Pratchett’s Unseen University (staffed by a collection of decrepit wizards), and then Lloyd was behind an honorary doctorate from UniSA awarded to Pratchett, the bonnet decorated with bobbing corks, Australian-style.

In Lloyd’s years at UniSA, the institution has put on a burst of speed, and late last year a strategic multi-year plan, Enterprise25, was released.

Enterprise25 ambitions are high. They include, by 2025, a ranking among the highest ­nationally for student satisfaction and graduate employment, along with the university’s top 20 ­accredited programs ranking among the “very best” in Australia and in the QS Top 100 subject ­listings internationally.

As well, according to the Enterprise25 plan, 15 per cent of UniSA’s operational income will come from research activities and 60 per cent of that activity will be directly linked to industry partners by 2025. By then, the plan goes, UniSA will be placed within the top eight institutions nationally for research excellence and known as the sector’s most industry-engaged university, and enrolments will have increased to 40,000 students, 25 per cent of them learning online, including domestic, international, postgrad­uate and undergraduate students.

To forge ahead in the digital world, Lloyd says, the university has rebuilt its online curriculum, spurning what he deems the worst incarnation of online learning: PowerPoint presentations with boring voice-overs.

“In the last year we’ve created UniSA Online as a division within the institution and we’ve gone back to the drawing board on how you construct curriculum for new programs,” he says. “We’ve rebuilt the curriculum to be digitally received. It has high video content; it has links. It’s very deliberately targeted at a cohort of the market who are in work, who are mid-career, who want to access education for career improvement or career opportunity.”

Since UniSA Online opened its virtual doors last December, more than 1500 students have enrolled for the on-demand digital courses, Lloyd says, and 55 per cent are from outside South Australia — so far only from other states rather than other nations.

Offering online education to international students is part of the long-term plan, Lloyd says. “It’s a good way to reach international students,” he adds. “That lies behind the growth aspiration that’s in Enterprise25.”

International students comprise about 21 per cent of UniSA’s total student population, a little below the national average, and Lloyd says he would like to see this proportion grow during the course of Enterprise25 to about 25 per cent. But all these grand plans will be moot if the merger with the University of Adelaide proceeds. Lloyd insists he’s not having second thoughts about the advisability of the two institutions becoming one but, on the other hand, neither is he committed to the idea.

“I think the potential to create a 21st-century university of scale, de novo, is a once-in-a-generation opportunity,” he says, adding that he is a fan of building a new curriculum “geared to the contemporary society in which you live and function and work”.

On the other hand, such a venture would be a journey into the largely unknown. “You look at it through the practical lens of how do you do that, how much does it cost, what’s the transition look like, what’s the motivation and what’s the impact on state economy, national economy, student satisfaction?”

The process now under way, he explains, will culminate in a lengthy report presented to the two university councils at the end of this year, each of which will then vote on whether to merge. If either decides against it, the merger will not proceed.

Either way, Lloyd wants to ensure the university is set to weather a potentially uncertain future. “Right now Australia is lucky that Brexit is causing trouble in the UK and Donald Trump is in place in the US,” he says.

“That won’t always be the case. If we become complacent, or overly expensive, or overtly xenophobic, we will find ourselves with a very large industry that nobody wants to access.”