Facelift for Australian gothic

June 28, 1996

Traditionalist University of Sydney is sprucing up its image for the market, Susannah Smith writes.

From the picturesque, gothic buildings at the University of Sydney's main campus, the sounds of drills, hammers and construction workers' banter break the academic reverence that is synonymous with Australia's oldest tertiary institution.

Academic staff and students scurry past the scaffolding that cloaks some of the city's most beautiful and historical sandstone buildings, wary but curious of the sudden burst of architectural activity. University administrators and heritage specialists clutch their clipboards and stand in the sun with heads uptilted, as they discuss the next crucial step in preserving the university's much-publicised crumbling building facades.

For the first time in its 150-year history, the University of Sydney is undergoing a major Aus$500 million (Pounds 250 million) facelift. It is the last, and most expensive, of many changes over the past decade.

Deryk Anderson, who is acting vice chancellor following the surprise departure of Don McNicol and pending the arrival of the appointee, Gavin Brown, views the renovations with excitement.

"The university is really a cultural icon in the city and people are just interested in it," he said. "It's important that we preserve it."

Professor Anderson said he has been mortified by the damage the buildings had suffered over time. "It's amazing to see all the terrible things that have been done to the buildings , but I'm truly in awe of the quality of the materials that were initially used. The quality of the timber is so seasoned and straight - you just don't see timber like that anymore."

But it is not just the ill-treatment of the university's buildings that Professor Anderson laments. In a radical departure from its early days as an elite and conservatively positioned institution, 13 years under a Labor government witnessed dramatic growth and change in the university.

When the number of universities jumped from 19 to 36 in the late 1980s through a series of amalgamations of colleges, institutes and existing universities, Sydney expanded from 19,000 students to 30,000.

The university had acquired several existing institutions, including the Sydney Institute of Education, the Institute of Nursing Studies, the Sydney Conservatorium of Music, the Sydney College of the Arts and Cumberland College of Health Sciences.

Most recently, it also competed with Charles Sturt University to acquire Orange Agricultural College, which has a 1,200-acre site across the Blue Mountains in the New South Wales central west.

There are 5,500 staff, including more than 2,000 academics - 160 of whom are professors. Of its 30,000 students, 24,000 (including postgraduates) are located at the university's main city campus. Law and medicine are considered the strongest of the 13 faculties, which range from agriculture to veterinary science, and architecture to nursing. Each year, up to 8,000 students graduate and since it was was first established in 1850, Sydney has awarded some 170,000 degrees. The budget exceeds more Aus$500 million a year. "I suppose this so-called massification of higher education in Australia hit us really fair and square," Professor Anderson said.

The sudden growth that came with the amalgamations created a number of significant problems. Aside from sheer size, the university had linked with institutions that did not share its proud research history. Increasing the research ethos at these centres has been a priority, particularly in the light of the Labor government's use of "performance indicators" in the allocation of research funding - a measurement tool the university now feels has left it at a distinct disadvantage.

"Getting the research up to the kind of level that would be expected of a university of this standing has been a major problem for us," Professor Anderson said. "Those universities of the same standing as Sydney that did not go in for amalgamations in the 1980s stand to do very much better than a place like this which did embrace a lot of diversity. Our performance indicators have gone down by virtue of the fact that many of the colleges are still developing their research."

Sydney has also been slow to take on many of the competitively-based commercial activities promoted by Labor to wean universities off public funding. Internationally, the university is a long way behind its major rivals, the University of New South Wales and Monash, whose incomes have been greatly boosted by their on and off-shore international activities.

"This place was very conservative and very slow to pick that up," Professor Anderson said, "But it is gradually building up its base."

Despite its slow start, the university is the preferred destination of students from more than 60 countries around the world, and has a good reputation for the services it offers its international student population. Its most significant off-shore development has been a twinning arrangement with Malaysia's International College at Penang, where the university had its first intake of students in economics, arts and commerce in 1994.

Sydney also strongly resisted government pressure to charge fees for postgraduate courses, and while this has been widely commended by students groups, it has been at considerable cost. Anticipating cuts of up to Aus$500 million at the hand of the new Coalition government, Professor Anderson predicted a considerable hike in fees for postgraduates. Should the cuts be as severe as the sector predicts, Sydney will need to find another Aus$36 million a year to maintain its current funding levels.

"We're obviously going to be pushed to charge more fees than we have in the past."

It is, more than anything, the university's traditional conservatism and elite academic focus that has made its transition to commercial and political activities so strained. Professor Anderson recalls his first day at the university in 1992. Asked by a university administrator what his immediate needs were, he requested a computer. He was told this would take up to three weeks but the administrator softened the blow by telling Professor Anderson the university's art curator would visit later that morning to help him select artworks (immediately available) for his office.

"I just laughed and thought, well, that really describes the University of Sydney."

Like most research-oriented universities, Sydney has experienced its fair share of conflict with Labor's Department of Employment, Education and Training policy-makers. "They were keen to negotiate a profile with us that focused on undergraduates and have been loathe to see us shift loads from undergraduates to postgraduates," Professor Anderson said. "But we have always been keen to develop our research strengths and postgraduate training. Whether that will be freed up under the conservative government remains to be seen. It will certainly be very interesting to find out."

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