ACT News

Nobel Laureate Brian Schmidt takes over as ANU vice-chancellor

In his very first week as vice-chancellor of the Australian National University, Professor Brian Schmidt's first official duty was to welcome some of the undergraduates most eager to secure a place at the ANU.

The ANU has made more than 2150 early offers to the nation's top year 12 graduates – including more than 600 ACT school-leavers.

Newly appointed vice-chancellor Professor Brian Schmidt meets new ANU students, from left, Hannah Chan, Therese McMahon ...
Newly appointed vice-chancellor Professor Brian Schmidt meets new ANU students, from left, Hannah Chan, Therese McMahon and Callum Sambridge. Photo: Graham Tidy

Three of them, Callum Sambridge, Hannah Chan, and Therese McMahon, have used their high Australian Tertiary Admission Ranks to lock in a place at the ANU ahead of their peers who await the main round of offers on January 20.

The Nobel Prize-winning astrophysicist admitted he was experiencing a few of those first-week jitters that will be felt across campus when the academic year begins in six weeks.

"It's exciting but a little nerve-racking at the same time," he said.

As the ANU's 12th vice-chancellor, Professor Schmidt said he intended to "reassert" the ANU's position as Australia's only national university and to lobby on behalf of the university sector as a whole.

To that end, he believed the current funding model was not serving institutions, or the national interest, effectively.

He hoped for a national conversation on the value of world-class tertiary teaching and research and would work to ensure such a conversation took place.

A supporter of university fee deregulation just like his predecessor Professor Ian Young, Professor Schmidt said a sustainable university funding model needed to be considered as a matter of urgency as the current system was close to broken and favoured "quantity over quality".

"We need to focus on excellence, and get serious about it. Being mediocre internationally is not something that interests me."

He praised Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull's $1 billion innovation package, saying it was a good time, politically, to be leading a university given the bipartisan acceptance of the value of investment in innovation.

While any new university funding mechanism needed to accommodate the true costs of world-class research, Professor Schmidt cautioned that any move to deregulate fees needed to be fair to students – and not saddle them with debts which were unrelated to their course of study.

"The best thing I could do for the students of Australia is to give them a world class education and the current funding mechanism makes that difficult. I look forward to contributing to the national debate about how we solve this dilemma and ensure that future generations of Australians get the best possible education."

Professor Schmidt did not plan any dramatic changes to the ANU or its management structure in the short term, saying he wanted to use his first weeks and months to consult widely with staff and students before formulating a long-term vision for his five-year term.

On the issue of the beleaguered School of Music, which continues to face a staff exodus and has so far failed to engage a new head of school despite in an international head-hunt, Professor Schmidt said: "It is absolutely already getting my attention in the first couple of days."

But he said turning around the school's fortunes could take up to a year to achieve and would be done through appropriate consultation.

"Under my watch we are going to have a school that gets the attention it needs to ensure people are happy. But people have to have patience because I cannot simply turn it into something world-beating in a day. That patience is imperative. It allows us to do something sensible. Putting out fires all the time will not allow us to build a great school of music."

As students around the country have until midnight Wednesday to change their course preferences for the main round of university offers through the Universities Admissions Centre, Professor Schmidt said he was pleased that overall demand for the ANU had remained strong.

"The ANU continues to be the university of choice for talented young people from across the nation and overseas."

Demand for domestic undergraduate places remained strong, with first preference applications up 13 per cent compared with 2015.

Callum Sambridge, a Radford College graduate with an ATAR of 96.8, undertook an ANU extension course in science while still at college and will begin a degree in advanced Science with honours. His passion for physics was noted by Professor Schmidt, with Callum describing his new vice-chancellor as "a brilliant and really inspiring figure".

Hannah Chan has enrolled in a double degree of engineering and advanced computing with a ATAR of 98.75. She was intrigued by advances being made in repairing damaged brain cell tissue and was considering a career path in biomedical engineering.

Therese McMahon has enrolled in a Bachelor of Arts/Masters of International Affairs after securing an ATAR of 85 and is keen to secure a career in the United Nations undertaking humanitarian work.