Q&A with Ian Jacobs

We speak to the vice-chancellor of the University of New South Wales

April 9, 2015

Source: University of New South Wales

Don’t hold back. Life is about people, people, people - so get to know as many as you can and be as open and communicative as you possibly can

Ian Jacobs is a leading researcher in the field of women’s health and cancer. He has held positions at numerous institutions including University College London and the University of Manchester, at which he was vice-president and dean of the Faculty of Medical and Human Sciences. In February, he started as vice-chancellor of the University of New South Wales.

Where and when were you born?
I was born in the East End of London in 1957 and grew up in Cockfosters in North London – at the end of the Piccadilly line.

How has this shaped you?
Growing up in London was exciting and full of opportunities, while also providing a strong identity and a sense of confidence of being from one of the world’s great cities. It can also lead to a rather narrow perspective on the UK and the world. I don’t think I really escaped that until I started a medical programme in Uganda in 2004 and then made the move to Manchester four years ago.

It’s been just under two months since you took up the UNSW Australia role; how has it gone so far?
It has been wonderfully exciting. I pinch myself every morning to check it is not a dream to find myself living in Sydney, a magnificent city, leading such a large, vibrant, high-quality university and working with so many enthusiastic, ambitious and talented colleagues. It could not be better.

You’ve swapped the North West of England for New South Wales – quite a departure. How do they compare?
It was famously said that Manchester has “everything except a beach”. Sydney has everything including beaches.

You have left quite a hole in the field of women’s health and cancer research in the UK by moving to Australia. Are you hoping to add to your expertise while in Australia or will the leadership role take up all your time?
I will definitely be pursuing my research interests. The key mortality results from the ovarian cancer screening programme that I have led for the past 30 years will be reported in the next year, and I am fortunate to have a Cancer Research UK/Eve Appeal-funded research programme that continues to 2016. I am beginning to explore funding opportunities in Australia. My view is that, where possible, senior academic leaders should remain active in teaching and research. It was an approach I admired in Manchester and will adopt at UNSW.

In the short time you have been in the position, how has the sector compared with the UK’s?
Australia’s Group of Eight contains six universities in or around the top 100 worldwide that would comfortably sit in the upper half of the Russell Group, but only one would unequivocally be in the top 50. In a country with the wealth, resources and skilled workforce of Australia, my view is that the ambition should be set higher, given all the benefits that great universities bring for society and the economy.

As a child, what did you want to do when you grew up?
A vet until about eight, a doctor after that, but always a centreforward for Arsenal and England, scoring the winning goal in the FA Cup Final. How sad is that!

What advice would you give to your younger self?
Throw yourself into every opportunity you have. Don’t hold back. Life is about people, people, people – so get to know as many as you can and be as open and communicative as you possibly can.

What keeps you awake at night?
Fortunately nothing right now. As a surgeon and doctor I used to worry a lot about my patients. My experience as a cancer specialist, conducting complex cancer surgery, with the stress of knowing that the life of each patient could be dependent on how well I performed, has put other stresses into perspective.

What’s your biggest regret?
Not being brave enough to get actively involved in politics when I was younger. It’s probably too late now.

If you were [Australian education minister] Christopher Pyne, what HE policy would you immediately introduce to the sector?
Separate research and teaching funding streams so that teaching no longer subsidises research. Make the case to the people of Australia for investing more in research for the social benefit and the future economic prosperity it will bring. Continue a balance between public and private funding for tuition with fees at levels sufficient for high-quality education and safeguards built in to ensure that higher education is available to all regardless of ethnic group, indigenous origin or socioeconomic background.

What creature comfort do you miss the most from the UK?
Literally a “creature”’ comfort – I miss hugging our dog Jazzy who is too old to make the trip to Sydney and is staying with family. Most of all, Chris and I miss our parents, our three children, other family and close friends. But we are back in the UK regularly, and they are all planning extended visits – so we may well get more “quality” time with them than we did in the UK. I hope so.


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