By DAVID MYTON
The Business Higher Education Round Table recently conferred a special award on Deakin University VC Jane den Hollander “for her work in establishing Geelong as one of Australia’s most vibrant innovation precincts”. Had they but known, BHERT might have also made special mention of one Steve Jobs for his role in the project.
den Hollander, previously Deputy Vice-Chancellor (Academic) at Curtin University in Western Australia, took up the top job at Deakin in July 2010.
Deakin’s home base, Geelong, was “a depressed place” at the time, she recalls. Long-established companies such as Ford and Alcoa were in a downward spiral with local “downstream industries” warning that if the big guys pulled out of town, they wouldn’t be far behind.
“It looked as if the end of Geelong was nigh,” she tells CMM. A consultant advised that the university headquarters should be moved to Melbourne, asking “why would you stay in Geelong?”
“Towards the end of 2007 Steve Jobs had just held up his new smart phone,” den Hollander says.
“I’m a biochemist, I come from science, but I’m steeped in IT. And there’s one thing I knew when I saw the smart phone – it would change the world.
“First, it was beautiful, and second, when you used it, you knew that the whole idea of data and apps would explode.
“By 2010 we were in the midst of a digital revolution and disruption was coming – and what would it mean for a city like Geelong? What was the future if we did nothing?
“We decided to bet the house on digital.”
It turned out to be a good bet.
Delivering commercial outcomes
Deakin, established in 1974 (and named after the leader of the Australian federation movement and the nation’s second Prime Minister, Alfred Deakin) was Victoria’s first regional university.
As well as serving the local communities in Geelong and Warrnambool, it quickly carved out a reputation for delivering distance education, which, in the pre-internet era, meant posting out hard copies of course notes, library books, taped lectures, plus seminars via phone conference call.
Today, having recovered from its temporary blip, it is chugging along nicely with more than 60,000 students including 12,000 international.
It has five physical campuses, including one in Melbourne’s eastern suburbs, two in Geelong and one in Warrnambool, plus international offices in India, China, Indonesia, Sri Lanka and Latin America.
Its fastest growing “campus”, however, is in the Cloud with more than 13,000 students studying online.
Deakin’s research efforts have strong links with local business and industry, much of it focused on high tech centred on health, carbon fibre, energy and cyber security, and with the goal of delivering commercial outcomes.
‘The Geelong community saved Geelong’
den Hollander, who in 2017 was appointed an Officer of the Order of Australia for “distinguished service to tertiary education”, says many people think that the university “saved Geelong”.
“Well, we didn’t. The Geelong community saved Geelong by embracing this incredible publicly-funded university – Deakin – which was theirs anyway; by embracing the digital frontier; and that we were opening up and that we would do things differently.”
This involved investing in a new Future Economy Precinct in Geelong, now home to leading advanced manufacturers in areas such as carbon fibre; and in an “advanced manufacturing innovation hub” called ManuFutures at the Geelong Waurn Ponds Campus, developed in partnership with the Victorian Government. It offers tenants “access to the research and knowledge of the university as well as an extensive range of business support, centralised corporate facilities and front of office functions”.
“We invested, and we invested by partnering with industry – which is no mean feat because we were an internally focused university,” den Hollander says.
“One of the things my team and I have helped do is to put doors into Deakin, metaphorically. We’re saying to business and industry – this is how you come and talk to us, or, even better we’ll come and talk to you. We won’t tell you why we want your money – we’ll ask you what your issues are; what are the problems you have that we might solve?”
ManuFutures now hosts some 10 employers as tenants. “From April to September this year we have 38 internships and 31 new high skill jobs have been created,” she says.
“It has been outstandingly successful.”
‘I think women do matter’
The eldest of four children, den Hollander was born and raised in Zambia and South Africa. Her father was a miner from Northern Ireland and her mother came from Liverpool, England.
“Both my parents were caught up in World War II – they were that age, and they lost their childhoods, neither of them went to university, neither finished school, but both of them were smart. They emigrated to Zambia, my father first and my mother followed.”
Her father worked as a gold miner. She had “a great childhood” in a small gold mining town, and won a scholarship to attend the University of Witwatersrand in Johannesburg, South Africa, from which she graduated with a First in Zoology and a Master of Science.
She moved to the University of Wales in Cardiff UK, taking out a PhD in science. She then embarked on an academic career focusing on research in cellular biology before being part of a start-up company CSU Software (now Prospects UK). Migrating to Australia, she went on to work in senior roles at the University of Western Australia and Curtin University.
Among other roles, she has been a board member of Universities Australia, a member of the Advisory Board of the Office of Learning and Teaching, and a trustee of the Geelong Performing Arts Council. She is currently a member of the Victorian Premier’s Jobs and Investment Panel and a Trustee of Unisuper.
Life can be difficult for women in higher education, she says.
“I have had annoying things happen to me that many women would have experienced. You say something, and the conversation carries on, and then a man says exactly what you said and everyone says ‘that’s a really good idea, we’ll do it’.
“I think women do work harder. I’m pretty single minded and I’m reasonably tough so I have made my way. I take a strong line on women’s issues as it does seem hard in Australia to get up the system.
“It’s undeniable there are fewer women on boards, it’s still rare for women to be vice-chancellors, and although that’s getting better I do think as a culture we need to do more to encourage the next generation in every aspect of our society. The behaviour towards women in our parliaments is but one example of what needs to be focused on.
“And most serious of all is domestic violence – more than one woman a week is killed by someone she knows in a domestic relationship – in Australia! This is now a crisis that engulfs us all. Until we have respect for women, for minorities, for LGBTQI, we will not be equitable. We must deal with this issue in our society but still we pay it no attention.”
Commitment to distance education
Deakin is continuing its commitment to distance education through its digital platform Cloud Campus, which in partnership with Future Learn offers more than 200 courses including full degrees across subjects in the arts, science, sport, nutrition, architecture, business, law, medicine, engineering, nursing, psychology and teaching. It is the first university globally to offer full degrees on the Future Learn platform.
More than 13,000 students study predominantly online, with international offices in India, China, Indonesia, Sri Lanka and Latin America. There are plans to launch a Cloud offering in India in 2019.
The Cloud Campus enables students to view classes live online, record classes to watch later, collaborate with staff and students, access library resources, and services such as counselling and IT support.
“We are very proud of what we have done in the cloud,” she says.
“If you are a distance student and in the cloud the data indicate you are getting an excellent experience at Deakin. Our postgraduates and undergraduates are a substantial community and we have created a dedicated group of staff who only serve our students in the cloud.”
The Cloud Campus offers students “pathways,” she says.
“We have particularly high standards, but if someone has had a misspent youth we will get them a pathway – it may take you a bit longer, but you’ll get your degree.
“We are not the biggest distance educator in Australia but we do want to be the best. We are considered to be a leading edge first mover in a lot of things, and this is how the future will look for us – try new things but always with students as true north – their experience matters.”
‘MOOCs are a game changer’
Deakin is also offering a significant number of MOOC qualifications and micro-credentials, again working with Future Learn.
MOOCs, says den Hollander, were a “game changer” for universities.
“They are free and they have been a brilliant democratisation for education – everyone can do something. You can pay a small amount of money if you wish to have recognition and be assessed, $95, and then you can get your certificate of achievement.”
Some of the MOOCs on offer provide credit towards a postgraduate degree.
“We are quite pleased with the progress there because it’s about accessibility – try before you buy if you want to call it that way. See what you think, do you really have time to study, do you really want to do this, are you interested enough, are you capable enough – try it, and you can walk away if you don’t like it.
“You can pay the $95 and get the shingle that says you did the first bit, but if you want to go further here’s the cost of the Deakin degree.”
The university has also started to offer credentials for professional practice.
“In the workplaces of Australia and beyond, huge numbers of people have learnt everything there is to know about quite spectacularly complicated things that keep their workplace going , but they have no evidence, no credential, and often can’t move on,” she says.
“Computing and digital marketing are examples where people have learnt large amounts of knowledge, but have no shingle that says ‘I’m an expert at this’. With these courses we’ll give you conversion to a credential that says ‘I’m an expert and here’s the evidence, and here’s how it’s been assessed’. And that’s proving to be very popular, with employers and employees.”
The shoulders of giants
den Hollander is due to retire in in June next year. She acknowledges the work of her predecessors in the role and that she has “stood on the shoulders of giants”.
“My job when I got here was to set the agenda though a new strategic plan and then enable the culture to be more risk taking, much more nimble, and to focus on excellence in teaching and research and industry relationships Ensuring staff enjoyed Deakin was also important to me. By doing that we have achieved but there is room to go further.”
Deakin has made significant advances in the research rankings, such that it is now in the top two per cent of universities in the world, she says, and is No 1 in Victoria for learning satisfaction.
She is especially proud of Deakin’s contribution to the life and economy of Geelong and Warrnambool. In just five years, she says, the Future Economy Precinct at its Waurn Ponds campus has helped to create more than 2,500 jobs.
“The taxpayer funds universities in Australia and so it’s our duty to engage and work with the communities we serve, and I think we’ve done that especially well in Geelong and Warrnambool.”
What will she miss the most on retirement?
“I’ll miss the collegiality, I love the community I work in, and I love the argumentative nature of universities – you can go into a room and have the most astounding conversations and come out with something so much better because of the cleverness and ingenuity and generosity of staff and students.
“I shall miss that desperately.”