A life of public service
On 26 July 2010, the Hon. Robert Hill became the 15th Chancellor in the University of Adelaide's 136-year history.
An Adelaide graduate in Law (1968) and Arts (1983), Mr Hill has had a distinguished career, most notably in politics as a Senator for South Australia. He served in the Ministry of the Howard Government and spent 10 years as the Leader of the Government in the Senate. Following his retirement from politics in 2006, he was appointed Permanent Representative of Australia to the United Nations, based in New York, until 2009.
Mr Hill spoke with Lumen about his ties with the University and his life of public service.
Q What do you remember most about your time as a student here?
A I came straight from school to be a Law student. It was an important part of my growing up experience. Starting at university with all its social interactions was new to me; it was an exciting period in my life but I probably was more motivated by the social side than the educational side.
In my second and third year I lived at St Mark's College, which added another dimension to my university experience - it was the first time I had moved out of home.
I came back here whilst I was practising Law to do an Arts degree that focused largely on international politics and Asian history, because they were my areas of interest. My motivation to be here was very different, and coming in as a mature-age student as opposed to a young person just out of school led to a very different university experience. In Asian history there were some very good, inspiring teachers. That was a good educational experience.
Q How important is the overall `campus life' experience for students, in addition to their teaching experience?
A I think it's very important. University is not simply what's being communicated in the lecture theatre, it's also about how people learn to relate to each other and to think about life's challenges.
Q How has the University of Adelaide changed since your student days?
A It's a much bigger institution. Today there are many more students, it's much more internationalised - having nearly 30% international students makes it different. When I was here as an undergraduate there were not many international students. Most of them were studying under the Colombo Plan, and a lot of those students were living at St Mark's.
The campus today is an evolved version of what it was during my student days. The current concepts of `learning hubs' are very different from my day and I think it's a very positive innovation. Apart from when we were in a library or even a lecture theatre, our social activity was totally distinct from our educational activity, whereas I think the way it's integrated today is a very healthy thing.
Q How has being a graduate of the University of Adelaide impacted on your career?
A It was the cornerstone of my professional career as a barrister and solicitor, but from the point of view of my political career, both the legal training and the international affairs education have been critically important.
Q If you were to choose a couple of your biggest achievements in your career, what would they be?
A My six years as Environment Minister were challenging and exciting because the environment portfolio was still evolving, the laws that I was sponsoring were new laws for Australia, a lot of the concepts were new, the language was new, and the progress we made in a whole range of areas in that portfolio was rewarding to me.
Being Minister for Defence was clearly a big responsibility and it was intellectually and politically challenging. It was at a particularly demanding time because we had deployments to Timor, Afghanistan, Iraq and to the Solomon Islands, so it was one of the busiest periods for defence in Australia's short history.
Serving as Australia's voice in the United Nations in New York was another great privilege, and to try to influence events in an organisation made up of 192 nation states is very challenging.
Q What does it mean to you to become Chancellor of your alma mater?
A I see it as a continuation of what I hope has been a life of public service. The University plays a very important role in the lives of more than 22,000 students, so if I can contribute from a governance perspective to the University being as good as it can possibly be, and as relevant as it can possibly be, then that's something worth doing.
Q How important is an international experience, both for students from Adelaide and for those who come here to study from other countries?
A It's extraordinarily important. We live in a globalised world and it's a shrinking globe in many ways. Australia needs to think globally, Adelaide needs to think globally, and the University of Adelaide needs to think globally.
I think of it not only from the perspective of Australian students here at the University, but I see an equal responsibility to the students we are attracting from overseas. They become very important bridges between our nation and their home countries, so we want their time here to be a rich and rewarding experience, not only in education but beyond the education.
Q You are currently Chair of the Australian Carbon Trust Ltd (appointed to this role by the Prime Minister). What role do you see universities playing in the big issues that impact on society, such as climate change and sustainability?
A The issue of sustainability and the management of natural resources, whether they be local resources or global resources, is one of the great challenges of our time and education is a critical tool. A lot of the mistakes that have been made in terms of the management of natural resources have been made out of ignorance; education becomes an essential step towards building a more sustainable society.
The tools towards sustainability require extensive research and innovative development and I think universities, and this University, are a very important part of that. If you look at the big challenge of climate change, the key issue is to separate economic growth from carbon growth, and that requires technological change, innovation and research.
This University has played a key role in agriculture in particular - you can't really talk about climate change without addressing the issue of food security.
Q Anything else you would like to say?
A I think the strength of this institution is related to an extent to the willingness of its former students to continue to support the institution in one way or another - even if it's just to continue to see themselves as a part of the University community. The University is making a greater effort to recognise that community; that's a very healthy thing and it will lead to a stronger institution in the future. ■
Story David Ellis