Welcome address 6th annual Sunshine Coast Futures Conference 2015

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Welcome address 6th annual Sunshine Coast Futures Conference 2015


27 November 2015

Ladies and gentlemen, welcome to the University of the Sunshine Coast and the 6th Annual Sunshine Coast Futures Conference.

And looking around the audience here, perhaps it would be better for me to have said “welcome back”, as well as “welcome”, as so many of us have been to these conferences before. The Futures Conference is becoming a diary fixture for leaders in our community who are passionate about the region’s prosperity and interested in contributing to positive change.

USC’s core business is the delivery of high quality teaching and research but unless that is well grounded in the current and future demands of our key stakeholders – our students and staff, the region, the business and wider community – then results can only be sub-optimal – and for a public university funded largely by taxpayers and students, this would be an unacceptable outcome.


So we’re here to listen to what things may look like in the future, consider possible investment opportunities and risks for the university, and also to share our experience and plans so that other drivers of the region are aware of what the university is up to and what this might mean for them.

Many people here today interact throughout the year and an event like this provides an opportunity to bring those conversations together in the presence of leaders from elsewhere. They can provide context regarding our issues and also provide a reality-check in cases where we might be keen to follow a path that is strewn with past failures. As is the case with any region, we are susceptible to self-delusion at times and we must guard against same. We also have a responsibility to provide leadership when it comes to assessing views bubbling up from the community and likewise their fears. We are not short of uninformed community lead campaigns on the Sunshine Coast.

We are at what many would believe is something of a turning point for this region. Having weathered the global financial crisis and its long aftermath, the region is not only well positioned for the future but already has a level of momentum running with it. The foreseeable future therefore, looks promising, but nothing is guaranteed and the best thing that we can all do is to work in a coordinated way to enhance the region which will have obvious flow-on effects to all of us – the institutions, the businesses, the households and the individuals.

The theme of this year’s Sunshine Coast Futures Conference is ‘Getting to our future’.

Before I provide a summary of what USC has been up to since the 2014 Futures Conference and our future plans, I will mention that it is the 20th anniversary of our opening in a couple of months’ time.

In general terms, the development of USC over the last 20 years has given a fantastic boost to the development of this region – commencing pretty well against the odds in 1996, in the early USC laid foundations and concentrated on undergraduate education until, over the last five years or so, we’ve reached the point where we can truly claim to run a comprehensive suite of undergraduate and postgraduate tertiary education programs and to have established a truly research oriented organisation.


Our headline statistics speak for themselves – we have 12,500 students including 10 percent international students. Our research income has grown 350 per cent over the last five years and although we’ve come from a small base we received over $10million in grants this year. We have about 850 FTE staff and have the highest achievable ratings (5 stars) in the Good Universities Guide for teaching and graduate satisfaction. And in a particularly pleasing outcome for the Sunshine Coast, this year we ranked 4 stars for graduate employment. This means that nationally, USC students are in the top 40% as far as going straight into employment after graduation is concerned – given the previously fragile economy of the region this has been a hard area for us to win at, but we’re getting there especially through a significant expansion of professional degrees.

Then there’s our Innovation Centre which is recognised as one of the best in the country, or our achievements in philanthropy. We are ranked highly nationally here too, this year exceeding $7.5M in gifts.

Whilst we are firmly embedded in the Sunshine Coast, we made a strategic decision at the start of the current strategic plan 2011 – 2015 that we needed to do more to ensure the continued rapid growth that would allow us to do all the things that it is so hard for a small institution to achieve (we’re still the smallest public university in Australia). A key component of this strategy, that was fully supported by our Council (or governing Board), was that the time had come for the institution to broaden its geographic footprint. This was a response to a broad range of factors: accepting greater responsibility for close-by communities that were poorly served educationally; establishing a broader catchment to ensure a viable USC into the future; discouraging competitor organisations from setting up shop nearby.

We had a plan and by the start of 2015 there was a vibrant campus at Gympie (opened in 2013), we were embedded in Southbank in the Brisbane CBD and we had expanded our engagement with communities and schools to both the north and south.

Just as you need a plan and a rationale for doing things, successful organisations need to be opportunistic. They need to take calculated risk and they need to be prepared to back themselves when an opportunity presents, even if it’s at an inopportune time. What an appropriate Segway into 2015.


After a false start back in 2010, our university had the opportunity to acquire the USQ campus at Fraser Coast this year. The transition is well advanced and responsibility will transfer to USC on 1 February 2016. There have been staff transfers, programs selected for delivery from 2016, and engagement with the community is now well advanced. We are enormously enthusiastic about what we can achieve on the Fraser Coast, as is the local community.

After consultations with Moreton Bay Regional Council stretching over several years, things rapidly moved to a higher level when the Council announced it was purchasing the old Petrie Paper Mill site, and that a university campus would be the foundation tenant. After a detailed competitive process, USC was selected as the successful tenderer just over a week ago.

To put these happenings in perspective, once the Moreton campus opens in 2019 or 2020, USC will have a network of campuses, each about an hour apart, which will service 1 million people. This is the sort of scale required to evolve USC into a truly great university of international standing. Its potential to expand its economic, social and cultural impact on the Sunshine Coast itself will grow exponentially.

The next phase of USC getting to its future will be guided by the recently released Strategic Plan 2016-2020.

It boils down to essentially three “out there” priorities:

The University will be: 

  • a comprehensive university of 20,000 students by 2020; 

  • positioned in the global tertiary education community as a top-100 university under 50 years of age; and 

  • a primary engine of capacity building in the broader Sunshine Coast region, from Brisbane to the Fraser Coast.

All this considered, this conference is as important for USC, as it is for anyone else in the room – we look forward to a very prosperous future but know that we cannot do it alone. As in any other part of contemporary life or business, our networks and partnerships are fundamental to us.

Much of today is about that and to assist us, I welcome back our good friends (both Adjunct Professors of this University), Dr Rob Greenwood of Memorial University Canada and Mr Ed Morrison of Purdue University Indiana, who will lead the sessions after lunch.

I had the pleasure of visiting Purdue and Memorial earlier this year and was hosted by Ed and Rob, for which I’m extremely grateful. Part of our strategy to ensure we meet the targets in our new strategic plan will be to actively benchmark against these prestigious universities, which nevertheless face many challenges and opportunities similar to ours.

As we talk of partnerships. I direct my final comments and thanks to Mayor Mark Jamieson, his Councillors and the executive and staff of Sunshine Coast Council who co-sponsor this event.

In my wide experience, I do not believe that there is a stronger or more successful partnership between a university and its local region than USC enjoys with the Sunshine Coast Council. It’s something we will need to replicate across a broader area if our vision for the future is to evolve in the ways we intend.

To give you an indication of the strength of the relationship I only need to go back to Wednesday of this week when the Mayor and I helped launch a truly massive “floating wetland” project at the new Parklakes 2 urban development. It features a new approach to the concept of biological filters as a solution to pollution problems caused by urban runoff.

The University is involved as a research partner in a concept funded by the developers and their consultants. It has the potential to put the Coast, the business partners and the university on the international map as leaders in innovation – but the punch-line is that the Sunshine Coast Council needed to adjust its planning protocols to allow this “innovation” to proceed – I’m told they did that because they were confident about the outcome because of the university’s involvement.

I’d also add that Council manage our paid parking on campus – there’s no better indication of mateship than taking that one on!

And a closing observation. I don’t think there’s been a better time to realise the futures of Sunshine Coast Council and USC, or especially partnerships between the two of us. The Turnbull government’s Innovation and Science Agenda holds great promise for the region, especially given the passion of local politicians for technology and innovation – themes dear to Council and the University – and themes that align so well with the sustainability focus shared by the community. We just need to get the political ducks lined up.

Enjoy today and contribute enthusiastically. As with the past Futures Conferences, I am sure that the outcomes will prove important to the future of our region. We really do need to plot and scheme and debate the way forward if our region is to reach its potential.

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