We need to think broadly and longer-term to ensure UOW thrives in a post-COVID environment, according to UOW Vice-Chancellor and Principal, Professor Paul Wellings CBE.
Universities specialise in the long-term. Our students usually study with us for several years and many staff have a lengthy tenure. Time to think and generate new ideas is one of our most valuable resources and, of course, alumni are for life. So, 2020 has been a new challenge for the University of Wollongong, as back-to-back crises have demanded short-term action. Immediacy has been the order of the day.
We triggered our crisis management processes in early January in response to the incredibly serious bush fires that tore through communities close to UOW’s South Coast and Moss Vale campuses. This activity has continued throughout the year for, as the fires died down, the COVID-19 pandemic picked up pace bringing with it immediate complexities.
UOW’s performance in the face of these events has demonstrated the strength of our culture, and the responsiveness, resilience and flexibility of our staff, students and communities.
The devastating fires in January had direct impacts on our campuses in Bega, Batemans Bay, Shoalhaven, and Moss Vale. All of them were closed as the fires raged nearer to endanger the safety of people in the region. Our staff in Bega and Batemans Bay responded to the local pressures on emergency facilities and services by reopening our buildings. They provided shelter, support and food to several hundred visitors to the region, even while their own homes were under threat of destruction. For alumni who live within our home communities, we shared this traumatising experience with you. For our international alumni, I know that you watched from a distance concerned for family, friends and the University.
COVID-19 had a direct impact on the academic work of the University as face-to-face teaching stopped. What happened next was extraordinary. Within a space of two weeks, staff retrained and put 1000 subjects online. All our students were asked to use remote learning provision and to minimise their time on campuses, which they did willingly. A number of our laboratories also adapted their work in response to the NSW State Government’s call for companies to retool to help with the provision of personal protective equipment.
When the Commonwealth Government closed international borders, the number of international students entering NSW dropped sharply. As a result, UOW has been the immediate loss of over $90 million and the prospect of weaker budget projections for 2021 and 2022. Many of our international students are now working from home via our online delivery. Here in Wollongong, we have attempted to strengthen the financial resilience of the University’s budget. We should be immensely proud of the collective leadership of UOW staff who voted to make changes to their contracts over two years to June 2022 in order to help put certainty back into the budget planning.
Most of us have never had to experience ‘one in a hundred year’ events during our working and personal lives. For two of them to land in one year has been a challenge beyond reckoning. But, UOW staff have responded to that challenge with care for each other, innovation and resourcefulness. The experience has also demonstrated that large institutions, like universities, can identify latent potential and shift into new modes of operation. 2020 has shown that there is the will within UOW to imagine a different way of doing things in the longer term. I would like to thank the many alumni that have reached out during this challenging year. Your support has been greatly valued.
We have already begun planning to identify a route back to full recovery and position the University for the next 50 years. For UOW, and many alumni and their businesses within our communities, this will be a tough period. We have a decade of austerity ahead. Collectively, we have an obligation to make sure that we make that journey without introducing further inequalities and asymmetries in the life opportunities of those who are yet to experience this fine institution.
Professor Paul Wellings CBE
Vice-Chancellor and Principal