Q&A with Nancy Viviani

We speak to an international relations scholar who played a key role in the establishment of Australian-Asian studies

February 19, 2015

Source: Griffith University

After 30 years of teaching, my undergraduate and graduate students are in government, international bodies, foreign governments, ­business - everywhere

Nancy Viviani is professor emeritus in international relations at Griffith University in Brisbane, Australia. She was a pioneer in establishing the field of Australian-Asian relations and set up a centre for the study of the issue at Griffith in 1978. In the 1990s, she led a review of the state of Queensland’s university entry system. She was appointed an Officer of the Order of Australia in the Australia Day Honours 2015.

Where and when were you born?
I was born in Canberra in 1940 to Scots migrant parents.

How has this shaped you?
I had a country childhood – the national capital was under construction in a sheep paddock – and a city education, which was the best of both worlds. My parents were graduates of Leith Academy, and their high aspirations for their children were fulfilled in one generation, which is the dominant pattern of migrant achievement in Australia.

You have bridged the divide between academia and policymaking. What is your advice to scholars who feel they have something to offer policymakers?
The context for work in the policy arena is very different from academia, so the most effective way to contribute is to work in a policy job for a reasonable time. This allows one to see the problem from a policymaker’s point of view, and then the advice or research finding can be targeted and effective.

You are a staunch advocate of Australia-Asia relations and championed the post-Vietnam War influx of hundreds of thousands of people from Southeast Asia to Australia. How important is it to have a diverse society?
The influx of Vietnamese to Australia was the first real test of the end of the White Australia policy, formally abolished in the early 1970s. Despite some hysteria during the influx, the settlement of Vietnamese has been overall a success story for them and for the country. This has given Australians generally the confidence to deal with later waves of migration from other parts of Asia, so that managing a diverse society has widespread political acceptance. Muslim immigration from the Middle East has raised different issues of minority extremism, as in other countries, but the bedrock of support for diverse migration has held.

What have been the most positive higher education outcomes of your work with Australian-Asian relations?
Perhaps the most positive and durable outcomes stem from my undergraduate and postgraduate teaching of international relations in Asia and on Australian policy in Asia. I began this in the 1970s when these areas began to be a central focus for Australia. After 30 years of teaching, my undergraduate and graduate students are in government, international bodies, foreign governments, business, indeed everywhere.

You left academia in 1997. Do you miss working in the sector?
I don’t miss working day to day. The main problem with being an academic is one never has enough time to read. Retirement means I’m able to read not only in my own field, but in others where I have always wanted to know stuff.

Students have described your lectures as ‘brilliant’ and ‘inspired’. Which did you prefer: teaching or research?
The two were always closely connected for me. For example, when the Vietnamese kicked out the Khmer Rouge from Cambodia in 1979, we ran the Pol Pot seminar for months, one of the most rewarding research and teaching things I ever did. The students came from far and near.

As a child, what did you want to do when you grew up?
I didn’t really think much about that. It was rather what I didn’t want to be – for example, a teacher. And look what happened!

What advice would you give to your younger self?
The same advice my parents gave me. The world is a great and wonderful place. Go out there and give it your best shot.

What kind of undergraduate were you?
I was a mother with a baby son who yelled, so I became very efficient at doing my work.

What was your most memorable moment at university?
When I forgot to put the handbrake on my car, parked on a slope next to the lake adjoining the Australian National University staff club, and it slid into the lake while I was drinking beer with my mates!

If you were Christopher Pyne, Australia’s minister for education and training, what policy would you immediately introduce?
The Australian higher education sector is over-corporatised, over-bureaucratised and badly governed. The government needs to set up an independent universities commission to regulate universities, abolish the higher education part of the Commonwealth bureaucracy, introduce vouchers for student funding and adjust the [student loan] scheme accordingly.


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