University’s new horizon

THE University of Newcastle’s Vice-Chancellor, Professor Caroline McMillen, faces different challenges from those confronted by her predecessor, Nick Saunders, at the time of his appointment.

Professor Saunders’s top priority was reorganising the institution’s finances, a task he tackled with vigour.

Financial issues are no longer the problem they were, and Professor McMillen’s focus – in the NeW Directions Strategic Plan – is on enhancing and extending the university’s reach and status.

The Vice-Chancellor wants Newcastle to be in the top 200 tertiary education institutions in the world by 2015. She wants a 30 per cent boost to research output and 50 per cent growth in funding for health and energy research.

Those are excellent goals and are almost certainly achievable, with effort and with co-operation from academic staff. The Hunter Medical Research Institute has built on the already impressive reputation of Newcastle Medical School and demonstrated how careful investment in promising pilot research projects can be repaid many times over by helping researchers prove their ideas to major funding bodies.

That successful model can be multiplied within the health area and duplicated outside it.

Already the Hunter has a strong reputation for energy research. Home to the Hunter Valley Coal Chain, to two of Australia’s biggest power stations, a CSIRO energy research division and a variety of other government-funded energy projects, the region has a huge head-start in this field.

The university has a recognised strength in catering to disadvantaged students, and Professor McMillen plans to build on that, to the benefit of the Hunter.

The issue of workloads for junior academics has arisen. This must inevitably lead to scrutiny of work conditions for casuals and the broad issue of morale among teaching and teaching support staff. It has been suggested from some quarters for some time that heavy cost-cutting has affected morale and, by extension, quality of teaching in some areas.

The university has undergone a difficult, but necessary, period of recalibration in a new and hostile funding environment. It’s time for the institution to follow its motto and ‘‘look ahead’’ for opportunities in a changing world and region.

Clean air and health

THE advent of the collaborative website, Hunter Air and Health, promises to help residents of the Hunter Region make sense of conflicting information about air pollution and its potential health effects.

That’s a laudable goal. Too often people who live near pollution sources are left to navigate their own way through sometimes wildly conflicting accounts. Stakeholders in the discussion may be motivated by a variety of factors to collect, interpret and present air pollution data in particular ways, prompting difficult arguments about the validity of conclusions.

An honest broker, helping collect and interpret information, can play a vital role in an important but often emotional debate.

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