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Among the top 100: Paul Wellings

Wollongong sits on the New South Wales South Coast; nestled between the dazzling South Pacific on one side and a thick rainforest and mountain range on the other. At the foot of one of the mountains – Mount Keira – is the University of Wollongong (UOW).

Paul Wellings, Vice Chancellor of University of Wollongong

The campus is built in harmony with nature; footpaths wind their way between buildings, over streams and around the occasional pond, as if treating students to a scenic escape before leading them into a day of learning.

Giant trees shroud the campus in a rainforest-eqsue manner, while an abundance of green lawns stretch intermittently throughout the 82-hectare campus, inviting students to come, sit and enjoy.

“Wollongong is very lucky because it has one of the most beautiful campuses of any university in Australia,” UOW Vice-Chancellor Professor Paul Wellings says. “There is a tremendous sense of place that students get by going to a sophisticated campus, and we shouldn’t lose sight of that.”

“There is a tremendous sense of place that students get by going to a sophisticated campus.”

UOW began as a division of the New South Wales University of Technology (now the University of New South Wales) in 1951. It was designed to train engineers and metallurgists during the steel boom in Wollongong.

In 1975, the division became an independent institution – the University of Wollongong – and has continued its proud legacy ever since.

One cannot talk about UOW without commenting on the ducks that waddle carefree throughout the university grounds. Seemingly aloof, the ducks often scour the campus ready to swipe your meal if you’re not paying attention.

The university mascot itself is a duck – Baxter the duck, to be exact, named after Sir Philip Baxter, who played a role in the establishment of UOW. When asked about the ducks, Paul laughs.

He explains that they are a manifestation of the water systems on campus. “In the global league table of ducks per student, we would rank very high,” he says. “But I think the University of York in the UK is up there as well.”

Paul Wellings, Vice Chancellor of University of Wollongong

Paul is a UK native himself. His father served in the British army and as a child Paul would occasionally travel with his family to different parts of the world. He spent time in India and Nigeria before he was sent to boarding school in the UK.

At university, Paul specialised in population ecology. “I was working on the ecological aspects of pest populations, which is a topic I was interested in,” he notes.

In 1981, Paul was offered a job at the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO) in Sydney. He jumped at the opportunity and later transferred to Canberra in 1987.

Paul worked at CSIRO for more than 20 years, moving up the ranks through research management to deputy chief executive. In 2002, he was headhunted back to the UK to be the Vice-Chancellor of Lancaster University. But when a vacancy arose at UOW, Paul found his way back to Australia. He was appointed Vice-Chancellor in 2012.

Upon the global stage

UOW is ranked 17th in the world for mining engineering – sixth in Australia. It is a nod to Wollongong’s coalmining and steelmaking history, which have long been its economic backbone.

Over the years, Wollongong diversified from these major industries and the university adapted in kind with a change in its course offerings.

“Wollongong is still one of the great hubs of industrial activity on the east coast of Australia,” Paul says. “The great joy for me is that the university has evolved over the past 40 years.

“While we’ve still got a lot of roots in those specific industries, through engineering in particular, we’ve greatly diversified our portfolio of activities and now do a lot of work in health and other service industries.”

Seeing Wollongong among the top 100 universities in the world for engineering is not the only thing Paul is proud of. “A lot of universities
are aspirational because when students graduate, they leave with something on their CV for life,” he says.

“When students graduate, they leave with something on their CV for life.”

“Once they’ve got a qualification, they use it with pride. The fact that some parts of the university are now highly ranked is worth reflecting on. Our law and engineering courses are among the top 100 in the world. But then we’ve got physical sciences, arts and humanities, education and business all in the top 200 in the world. We have alumni all over the world in senior roles. There must be about 150,000 alumni now from the university and many of those people have gone on to fantastic careers in business and administration.”

Some of the biggest changes Paul has witnessed during his time at UOW is curriculum reforms, the implementation of new courses and an emphasis on work-integrated learning.

“A lot of our interactions are with small businesses; trying to build their skills, understand what their demands are and help them with some aspects of research,” Paul says.

“We’ve got very good networks now with small and medium-sized enterprises. We also have a good scheme supported by the state government, where we give SMEs vouchers to help them accelerate their uptake of technology or new ideas.”

Paul Wellings, Vice Chancellor of University of Wollongong

Paul believes the university has done well to respond to the needs of employers. “We’ve done a fantastic job in that space,” he says. “It’s reflected in the quality of the education environment here.”

He goes on to mention how Wollongong received a Spotlight Award at the 2018 Global Teaching Excellence Awards. The award recognises an institution’s commitment to teaching and learning excellence.

“We were named one of the top six universities in the world, highlighted by the way we deal with student satisfaction,” Paul says. UOW is the only Australian university to be shortlisted for the award over two consecutive years.

Research and technology at the core

UOW makes significant investments in research, design and innovation. The night before our interview, Paul welcomed back students who had competed in the 2018 Solar Decathlon in Dubai.

As part of the competition, each team had to design and construct a fully functioning solar-powered house. It had to be technically and architecturally inspiring and support independent living for elderly occupants.

“Students were asked to build an energy neutral house, take it apart and ship it, in our case, to Dubai,” Paul explains. “We finished second in an international competition with 20 other universities. And we were the only Australian university there.”

About 40 students were on the ground in Dubai, supported by a network of 200 students who were involved in the project over the past two years.

“It drew students from every faculty at the university, because we needed design students as well as engineering students. It was a partnership with TAFE, and a huge number of businesses interested in construction and modern design sponsored us to do that, Paul says.

“It’s an example of a very immersive educational environment where we’re doing things that are exciting from a research point of view but will also be transformational for those students. They will never forget the opportunity to work collaboratively not only with other UOW students but with student bodies from all over the world.”

The university’s investment efforts don’t stop there. In 2008 it opened the aptly named Innovation Campus for research into everything from sustainable building designs to more efficient energy systems.

Number of students enrolled: 34,144
UOW Alumni: 152,657
Number of degrees offered: 340

It has invested in fabrication – entering a partnership with TAFE and the Welding Technology Institute of Australia – to bring 21st century skills into practice, and financed battery technology for small handheld devices and industrial-scale batteries.

“In fact, there’s a UOW sodium battery being trialled at the moment by Sydney Water in Bondi as part of its reserve power supply there,” Paul adds.

In addition, UOW is building an A$80 million molecular and life sciences research facility, that will house one of the most powerful biological electron microscopes in Australia – the Titan Krios cryo-EM microscope.

It’s right in Paul’s area of expertise. “There are only about 20 of these microscopes in the world,” he says. “It will be the only one on the east coast of Australia. The microscope will be able to take images of molecules to help us understand how to look at the nano-sized bonds in them.”

From there, scientists can design drugs that can target problematic molecules. “Most of the things we get sick from are usually due to a large molecule that tries to pass through a cell membrane,” Paul says.

“So, we’re trying to design a drug that prevents those sorts of things. It’s very exciting.” The building is set for completion by the end of 2019.

Australia’s ageing population has given the university several opportunities to support the healthcare sector. “As people are living longer, the demand for having ‘running repairs’ on the human body are going to increase,” Paul says.

“What we’ll see is many more opportunities for universities and clinical practitioners to work together on technologies that we might need in very old age, such as new personalised products that can go inside our bodies safely.” Paul gives the design of new types of stents or creating different materials that are used for prosthetics as examples.

In 2018, the university partnered with construction company Lendlease to build a new health and wellbeing precinct at the southern end of the Innovation Campus. It will focus entirely on retirement living and ageing.

“We’ll have apartments for retirees and high-intensity aged-care beds for people who are seriously ill in old age,” Paul explains. “The university is also investing in a new polyclinic that will deliver medical services that we might need as a community and allow for research and training. If we pull that off, it will be about a A$500 million investment.”

From national to international

UOW has regional campuses in Shoalhaven, the Southern Highlands, Batemans Bay and Bega. In 2017, it opened its newest campus, UOW South Western Sydney, in Liverpool.

“If you stand in Wollongong and look south to the Victorian border, the population grows slowly but goes grey very quickly,” Paul says. “If you look north into the Sutherland Shire and South Western Sydney, the population’s growing very quickly, probably in excess of 2% per annum.

“The demand for education for young people, predominantly in those northern locations, is very high. In Liverpool, you can see a demand for computing, arts, business, accounting, social work and nursing. There’s a whole raft of degrees that we’ve offered for a long period at Wollongong that are right at the heart of the future needs of the population in Western Sydney.”

While there are several other universities that have a presence in Sydney’s south-west – Western Sydney University, the University of New South Wales and the University of Sydney – Paul sees the benefits of having UOW enter the ring.

“We are moving into a really interesting time when we’re beginning to collaborate a lot more rather than compete,” he says. “The question of how we deliver a range of services across a large geographical area to a growing population is something the university sector is lining up to do very rapidly now.”

Notable UOW Alumni

Dr Karl Kruszelnicki: physicist, science commentator, author
Van Badham: novelist, Vice President of MEAA, Victoria, columnist for The Guardian
Professor Justin Yerbury: molecular biologist, Senior Research Felloe in motor neurone disease

Liverpool is one of Sydney’s thriving cultural melting pots. To contribute to the suburb, artist and UOW alumna Claire Foxton painted a large mural on one of the building facades at UOW South Western Sydney.

The subject was Fijian native Adi, who moved to Australia eight years ago. The mother of two wanted to become a human rights lawyer after being involved in the Free West Papua Movement, the campaign fighting for the independence of West Papua.

UOW Deputy Vice-Chancellor (Health and Communities), Professor Alison Jones, said Adi was chosen because she “personifies the values UOW aimed to instil in its students”. Not only was she working, studying and taking care of her children but she contributed to her community as well.

On top of its statewide expansion, UOW is also beefing up its international presence. Its first foray into foreign waters was with its Dubai campus, which opened in 1993.

More recently, the university opened a college in Hong Kong. “We now have about 6,000 students in Hong Kong and we’re building a new facility in Kowloon,” Paul says.

“Late last year we took an equity position in a private university in Malaysia and intend to build a footprint in Kuala Lumpur and Penang. If that works, it will mean we’ll have somewhere in the region of 18,000 international students studying a Wollongong degree offshore, as well as creating opportunities to study in Hong Kong, Dubai or Malaysia as part of a degree program here. It’s building a different skill set for employers in the future who may be looking for graduates with multicultural experience and the capacity to work across cultural boundaries.”

An anchor throughout the ages

Paul describes universities as a mainstay throughout history. He believes their key to survival is being fast and flexible. “Universities have been around for the best part of 1,000 years,” he says.

“Their lifespans are different to corporate lifespans. The average ASX200 company exists for somewhere between 50 and 75 years because they either collapse, merge or morph into some other form.

“Universities tend to be an anchor in the way we see institutions. The thing for me is to ask, ‘How do we remain a place with a great tradition of learning?’ And at the same time, ‘How do we do things that are responsive, flexible and relevant?’ Wollongong university has a fantastic tradition of being adaptive in that way. You can see the effort we’ve put into making sure that graduates who leave Wollongong have got skill sets that give them fantastic career opportunities but also respond to the immediacy of the job market.”

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