La Trobe University: transforming people and communities

27 June 2022

La Trobe University has been making a positive difference to the lives of Victorians since 1967

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Welcome to another edition of Fast Five – our fortnightly series where we ask Victoria’s most influential and exceptional business leaders five questions to get a behind-the-scenes glimpse of some of Australia’s most dynamic businesses.

La Trobe University is Victoria’s third university, named after Charles Joseph La Trobe, the first Lieutenant-Governor of the new colony of Victoria from 1851 to 1854.

It educates more than 36,000 students, including 7,000 international students from 110 countries, from campuses in Bundoora (the largest metropolitan campus in Australia), the CBD on Collins Street, four regional campuses in Bendigo, Albury-Wodonga, Mildura and Shepparton, and one in Sydney.

In this edition we spoke to La Trobe University Vice-Chancellor, Professor John Dewar AO, about La Trobe’s vast operations and future plans, and the impact of COVID-19.

#1 What inspires you about your job?

When La Trobe University was established in 1967, its mission was to make a positive difference to society and provide a world-class university education accessible to everyone, no matter their socioeconomic circumstances or background.

This mission continues more strongly than ever – and I find it inspiring to come to campus every day and be part of a university that works so hard to address real world problems and lift aspiration and achievement for individuals and families across the communities that we serve. I’m proud that La Trobe has performed very strongly in the Times Higher Education Impact Rankings, which measure universities for their contribution to the United Nations’ sustainable development goals, being ranked first in Victoria in 2022.

It’s also really heartening to know that the wider community supports the work we do at La Trobe and shares our aspiration to make a positive difference. Last week, we celebrated the generosity of our supporters who have donated $100m to our Make the Difference campaign and helped us to expand our research and to support more students to have a university education.

These gifts have been game changing in so many different ways – supporting research into treatments for MS, Parkinson’s disease and cancer, and funding scholarships for talented students who couldn’t go to university without financial help. We were thrilled to announce our new target of raising $200m by 2026 and delighted to kickstart the campaign with some incredible gifts including the Beluga Foundation’s $6 million gift to support development of revolutionary stroke treatments led by our Professor of Physiology, Chris Sobey, with partners at the Hudson Institute and Monash Health.

#2 How did La Trobe University adapt during COVID-19?

The pandemic affected almost all areas of our operations during the last two years, and we put in place various measures so that we could continue to teach and support our students and conduct research. In March 2020, our staff moved more than 2,000 subjects online in the space of a week – that’s our entire semester one teaching load! It was a huge effort and it’s been clear from surveys of student satisfaction that our students have really appreciated their teachers going above and beyond to help them during the pandemic.

The University’s community spirit also came to the fore over the last two years, with our staff providing several important programs free of charge to help small businesses navigate the pandemic and support people to develop new skills. For example, the team in the La Trobe Business School developed a program called Leaders in Lockdown that saw 12,500 people undertake modules from the La Trobe MBA for free. It made a huge difference, especially for those who’d lost their jobs.

We’ve also delivered free online programs for regional businesses on digital strategy, customer acquisition and retention, financial modelling and investor relations; and we ran a program called Design and Grow Your Digital Presence with early-stage investment company Investible that was hugely popular, with more than 900 companies taking part. There are many other examples of our work with the community during the pandemic, including our nursing students helping with COVID testing in the regions.

#3 What are you hoping to achieve this year?

We’re focused on implementing our new Strategic Plan, developed in response to the pandemic. It’s guiding us to focus on our strengths so that we can emerge from the pandemic as a stronger and more resilient institution. In some respects the pandemic accelerated trends that were already emerging in the higher education sector, such as student demand for more flexible ways to study and the increasing importance of addressing short-term needs for skills development or retraining, and we’re working hard to address these trends.

We’re also focused on working closely with industry partners to translate and commercialise our research so that we can help to address industry problems and support the economy. Our work is centred on responding to the needs of our students, partners and communities at this time, which is why our new Strategic Plan sets our ambition to be “a university for the public good in a COVID-19 affected world”.

Amongst many other projects, we’re bringing this ambition to life through our sustainability mission, which is another focus for 2022 and beyond. Our academic staff have established the La Trobe Climate Network to bring together researchers to engage and lead on the challenges that climate change is presenting. La Trobe has also played a leadership role by being the first Australian university to commit to divesting from fossil fuels and in setting our aim to be the first Victorian university to achieve net zero carbon emissions by 2029.

To reach our net zero goal, we’ve invested in new infrastructure like solar panels across our campus network, and we’re very proud that two of our regional campuses – Mildura and Shepparton – have already achieved the milestone of being carbon neutral.

#4 How is La Trobe helping students develop job skills for a changing world of work?

We know that the world of work is changing very rapidly. Today’s students are entering a workforce that is very different to that which greeted their parents’ generation. We also know that automation will make many current occupations obsolete, and that pathways into and through a working life are changing dramatically, with many of the traditional ladders into the workforce disappearing. The idea of staying with one company or having a ‘job for life’ no longer applies – in fact, a young person commencing work today can expect to have about seven different careers during their working life.

These trends mean it’s important to keep developing knowledge and skills during a career. While traditional degrees continue to provide an important foundation, we’re also moving toward a more mixed offering of degrees plus shorter cycle qualifications and credentials throughout a working life. At La Trobe, we’re focused on helping our students develop skills and attributes that employers need, and we work closely with employers to design our subjects and courses.

La Trobe’s Career Ready Advantage program and Industry Based Learning also help students to develop a career portfolio to demonstrate their skills to potential employers through practical experience plus professional learning and skills development including modules with LinkedIn Learning.

#5 What is La Trobe’s University City of the Future?

The University City of the Future is a bold campus transformation project that is already taking shape at our campus in Bundoora. It’s a 10-year, $5 billion project that will be transformative not just for our campus but for the communities across Melbourne’s north, which is one of the fastest growing regions in Melbourne.

The project includes a new Town Centre with commercial, retail and cultural spaces; a Health and Wellbeing Hub to improve access to health and aged care services; and our Nangak Tamboree community eco-corridor. It also includes all the benefits that come with a cutting-edge Research and Innovation Precinct with industry partners aligned to La Trobe’s research strengths in agri-bioscience, food and environment; health and wellbeing; and digital technology. We’ll also provide education facilities for more than 40,000 students and additional housing for 12,000 students, staff and private residents – and the project will create more than 20,000 jobs and generate $3.5 billion in Gross Regional Product.

In March, we opened stage 2 of the La Trobe Sports Park, which is an important element of the University City of the Future. We expect 10,000 local community members to use the facilities each week. As well as providing a FIFA grade standard and synthetic soccer pitches, baseball diamond, AFL oval and pavilion, and multi-purpose highball courts, the Sports Park is a great research tool, with specialised laboratories for Biomechanics, Strength and Conditioning, Exercise Physiology, and Sports Analytics.

We look forward to working with La Trobe’s sports partners at the Sports Park including the Carlton Football Club and Melbourne Rebels. We’re also really excited about welcoming the Matildas to campus when they establish their home at the Sports Park, which will also be the Victorian base for Football Federation Australia’s national women’s programs and host a State Rugby Union Centre.

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