Founding Vice Chancellor Barry Conyngham (centre of 2nd row in suit) with students during O Week in 1994
When Southern Cross University opened in 1994 it lead the sector with innovative and in-demand courses like tourism, coastal management, popular music and medical crops.
Now 25 years later, the University’s Founding Vice Chancellor Professor Barry Conyngham AM says Australian universities are too similar, lacking distinctive differences that make them more compelling to prospective students. Universities such as Southern Cross could change that.
He also said that regional universities must continue to vigorously pursue federal research funding for their regions. He is presently Dean of Fine Arts and Music at the University of Melbourne.
Professor Conyngham made the comments ahead of his occasional address at Southern Cross University’s graduation ceremony today in Lismore, on the NSW North Coast. He was Vice Chancellor of Southern Cross from 1994 to 2000.
“It was a very exciting time for us all when Southern Cross University came into existence 25 years ago and I remember the sense of creating something new, young, adventurous and imaginative that responded to the local culture, geographical location and regional traditions of the Northern Rivers,” he said.
“The region possessed a wonderful combination of a hippy, creative, freewheeling, anti-establishment culture, and the fierce independence and tradition of agriculture – sugar, dairy, cattle – and the coastal enterprises and subtropical industries that had characterised the Northern Rivers for over a century. The traditions of creativity and conservation bumping up against each other.
“And the people of the region embraced us.”
Professor Conyngham said Southern Cross was the first university to accept tourism both as a degree and a profession.
“We also had the talent and location to research coastal management, plant genetics and medicinal crops. It was the first university in the country to concentrate on popular music and to introduce the formal education of alternative-medicine practitioners – over the dead bodies of a lot of old-school thinkers.
“Southern Cross is not alone in these endeavours now. Many universities have followed our leadership in these fields.”
Professor Conyngham reflected on the University’s next quarter of a century.
“We live in challenging and uncertain times. The best chance of continued success still rests in knowing how to identify what has changed and what has not, reflecting the region and those who now live and work in it, offering something different while connecting to our region. Let this place itself engender new strategies to hold on to its local young people while attracting others from around the world.”
He urged residents of the Northern Rivers to embrace Southern Cross University and to overcome a sense of complacency about it: “a danger to be avoided” after 25 successful years.
Professor Conyngham said the sector overall had to do more to ensure its viability.
“Australia needs diversity in its universities. While Melbourne University has provided a genuine distinctive model of undergraduate study and a high percentage of graduate professional offerings, most universities in Australia do not differ fundamentally from each other.
“Regional universities, reflecting on the nature of their locations, should try to focus on proactively being different to the sandstones and metros.”
He said more research dollars would benefit regional universities.
“While universities such as Melbourne need to have a very comprehensive program to compete with places like Harvard, regional universities need to focus.
Southern Cross can produce teaching and research that is world class, but it is more likely when linked to the quality and distinctiveness of their communities and locations.”