Professor Paul Wellings CBE reflects on the iconic year that was 1975 and its far reaching impact in creating and shaping future expectations.

For those of us born before 1975 it is easy to look back and reflect on the changes of the past four decades. Here in Australia we celebrated the first International Women’s Year, watched colour television for the first time, changed Prime Minister in controversial circumstances and witnessed the creation of an independent Papua New Guinea. We also began our national love affair with ABBA — Mama Mia topped the charts for 10 weeks.

In Wollongong, after concerted academic pressure and with constructive community support, the University of Wollongong became an independent autonomous institution on 1 January 1975 — the 18th university to be created in Australia.

The foresight and energy of that period characterised by the able leadership of our first Chancellor, Justice Robert Hope AC CMG, and our foundation Vice-Chancellor, Professor Michael Birt AO CBE, resulted in the development of a distinctive university and a comprehensive academic portfolio. Few imagined that a university in Wollongong would make the transition from a regional centre of higher education to a research intensive university of global standing over such a short period. But that is what has happened as the University is now ranked in the top 300 of over 20,000 universities in the world.

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Newly appointed academic and professional services staff were willing to take a big risk in moving to a greenfield site to be part of the creation of a new university. Many of these talented people could have gone elsewhere. They stayed and persevered. This investment of time, and academic intellect, combined with financial support from the Commonwealth Government set the foundations of a modern university.

Today our graduates are successful in securing jobs, our curricula are cutting edge, our main campus is one of the finest in Australia, and our research and research infrastructure is globally competitive.

Now in 2015 there are huge expectations of the university sector and, in particular, of universities like UOW. Our communities want us to retain our traditional roles of training highly skilled people through our degree programs and generating new knowledge through our research. In addition, we are now expected to work more intensively with industries, large and small. And we are being asked to become key players in the creation of new industries and new jobs.

Our future will depend on the success of our alumni and the leadership of our academic staff

Looking back is easy. Looking forward 40 years is more difficult.

Most forecasters predict that the coming period could see the emergence of a ‘perfect storm’ arising from the convergence of, for example, climate change, increasing concerns related to water and food security, energy shortages, the appearance of new epizootics and the growth of social asymmetries. In Wollongong we need to keep refining our capacity to work on global scale, multi-disciplinary projects, and to do this in collaboration with our colleagues from the world. At the same time, we must translate our efforts into locally relevant solutions to underpin the competitiveness of the Illawarra.

By 2055 Australia will have a much bigger population and face considerable public investment challenges. Our work on ageing, early education, infrastructure, energy and advanced materials will all continue to be relevant. These endeavours will be supported by new ideas arising from our ongoing investments in the sciences, medicine, engineering, business, social sciences and the humanities.

Our future will depend on the success of our alumni and the leadership of our academic staff.

In all of this there are some certainties: the University of Wollongong will be a vibrant and dynamic place with about 350,000 alumni; the ducks will be stealing someone’s lunch; and somewhere in Australia, there will still be a tribute band playing ABBA’s songs.