Interview with Dawn Freshwater

The Group of Eight chair on serendipity, widening access and why running marathons is a metaphor for almost everything

April 18, 2019
University of Western Australia vice-chancellor Dawn Freshwater
Source: Photo: Taryn Hays

Dawn Freshwater became vice-chancellor of the University of Western Australia in January 2017, three years after taking up an appointment as UWA’s senior deputy vice-chancellor. Prior to that she was pro vice-chancellor and head of the School of Healthcare at the University of Leeds. In February she was named the first female chair of Australia’s Group of Eight universities.

Where and when were you born, and how has this shaped who you are?
Nottingham in 1962. I was born into a working-class mining family with grandparents who had worked around the mines. My mother was a sewing machinist. I was the eldest of three children and left school early. I knew no different.

What was childhood in the Midlands like?
We lived in a tiny little two-up, two-down – the sorts of places you see in mining towns, with not very much else around. Doors left open, kids playing on the street; but we never ventured far to go walking. I don’t remember thinking about the beautiful green rolling hills or the limestone crags. I ended up back in the Yorkshire Dales when I worked at the University of Leeds. I had a completely different perspective on it so many decades later.

How did you come to be the first in your family to go to university?
I’d applied to become a nurse. I had to sit the entrance exam because I didn’t have the qualifications to get in. I was happy to go into basic training of two years, but when I sat the exam I was told I’d achieved the standard to do the three-year training. The tutor said it would be a good thing to do, so I did. Eventually I applied for a diploma-level programme. It took another 10 years to complete a degree and PhD.

Constant training, shift work, looking after a young daughter – how did you cope?
Lots of things seem important today, but by tomorrow they become background noise. I learnt that early on. In my early years I had two younger brothers, a mum in and out of hospital and a father present sometimes. Having to help a lot while I was at school, I’d already learnt to prioritise. In nurse training I was dealing with death as soon as I was 18. You learn to focus on what’s important and let other things wash over. For me as a vice-chancellor, there’s no such thing as an educational emergency. When people say it’s an emergency, I say, “Do we need a defibrillator?”

How important was it to have people pointing out opportunities and pushing you to achieve them?
I was doing my diploma [and] somebody said, with your grades, you should take the degree programme. People teaching the degree picked out that I had a keen interest in research that I could translate into a PhD. It sounds like serendipity all the way. There are opportunities that we can respond to if we see them. I had those opportunities pointed out to me.

Is the world full of people with innate ability but circumstances not geared to higher education?
In some areas you find a density of people for whom higher education is a natural progression. That’s how they think about it. Outside those areas, it can be quite sparse – a lot of people who are very talented, doing great things in their communities, who have not been given a chance.

What more could Australian universities do in their own backyard?
We should be encouraging and assisting those who are hindered in the acquisition of knowledge. We’re doing a lot, but we could do better. We need a properly targeted, concentrated, federally-led access programme for students from disadvantaged and underrepresented backgrounds. This university just graduated the highest number of medical students with an Aboriginal background in its history. They’ve come through foundation and “aspire” programmes just to get to undergraduate status, then they’ve come out with a professional accreditation and postgraduate qualification. It’s fantastic, but we’re not doing enough of that. We [must] make it attractive and encourage them to settle in and feel part of the culture. The five universities in Western Australia have joined up and put together an outreach programme where we each take part of the state and make sure we’re getting out, talking about the benefits and dealing with some of the anxieties.

You’re a marathon runner. Is that a metaphor for your work?
It’s a good metaphor for lots of things in life as well as being a vice-chancellor. It’s a fantastic way of balancing life and making sure you look after yourself, because if you can’t look after yourself you can’t look after anyone else. You have to pace yourself. I started running when I was in healthcare as a way of dealing with stress. We’d raise money for the hospital or social club. I was persuaded to run the London marathon for the [mental health] charity Mind, and ended up running every year for seven years. A highlight was raising funds for Mind while being able to test my capacity and get down to a three-and-a-half hour marathon.

If you were higher education minister for a day, what policy changes would you make?
One would be to recognise the value of excellent research and fund it properly. That would take more than a day. The other would be properly targeted access programmes.


Sir Konstantin Novoselov has joined the National University of Singapore as distinguished professor of materials science and engineering. Awarded the Nobel Prize in Physics with Sir Andre Geim in 2010 for their groundbreaking achievements with the two-dimensional material graphene, Sir Konstantin was previously Langworthy professor of physics at the University of Manchester, where he will continue to be involved. He is the first Nobel prizewinner to join a Singapore university. Sir Konstantin said that Singapore and NUS were “at the forefront” of creating new materials and discovering novel applications for them. “There is a strong commitment to innovation in Singapore, so I believe we can accelerate research translation and produce the next great technology here,” he said.

Mark Smith has been appointed vice-chancellor of the University of Southampton. Currently vice-chancellor at Lancaster University, Professor Smith replaces Sir Christopher Snowden, who retired last month. Professor Smith, who is set to start his new role in October, was previously deputy vice-chancellor of the University of Warwick. He said that it was a “tremendous privilege” to be joining “a university that is so committed in its vision and strategy to achieving dual excellence in its educational offering and research”.

Blair Grubb has been named the new vice-principal (education) at the University of Dundee. Professor Grubb, who will take up the position in August, is currently associate pro vice-chancellor (education) for the Faculty of Health and Life Sciences at the University of Liverpool.

Stephen Morris has been appointed the new Rand professor of health services research at the University of Cambridge. Professor Morris, who comes to the role from his position as professor of health economics at UCL, will start in June.

Jacquin Niles has been named director of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology Center for Environmental Health Services.

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