07 July 2022

AUTHOR: UNISA ACTING VICE CHANCELLOR PROFESSOR MARNIE HUGHES-WARRINGTON AO

Those of you who sat through Metaphysics 101 will remember Theseus, the mythical founder and king of Athens who returned from Crete in his mythical ship, a ship that was preserved by the Athenians who took away the old planks as they rotted and replaced them with new, stronger timber.

The change begged the question (at least by Heraclitus and Plato): if every part of the ship of Theseus was replaced, every plank, one at a time, would it then become a new ship? If so, at what point did that newness begin?

It’s a fundamental question of identity and one that could be asked of today’s universities, which no longer exist to confirm knowledge of any kind and haven’t really since 1224, when the University of Naples dedicated itself to a king, and not a pope, and secular education developed alongside religious teaching.  

For around 1000 years, give or take a decade, universities have helped humanity grow, through research, through teaching and through a commitment to sharing that knowledge when possible, with the community that supports us.

Change is a vital part of that growth.

Universities have led change throughout their history, producing new knowledge through discoveries that change the world.

They don’t exist to confirm knowledge but to disrupt it.

And in that disruption, that chaos, lies growth.

A university is, by its nature, an agent of change. An inclusive enterprise that facilitates different perspectives – and supports the people who hold those perspectives – in ways that transform.

We transform everything that comes within our orbit: ourselves, our students, our partners, together creating new knowledge and disrupting everything we thought we knew.

We are change. We are nimble and agile and ready to react to favourable conditions.

We are today what we weren’t yesterday. What we will no longer be tomorrow.

UniSA was created with a mission in 1991 and that was to provide a high level of education to people who might not ordinarily have the benefits of such. We were committed to improving the education and life opportunities of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders; we soon became the largest provider in Australia of education programs offered offshore; we developed a reputation as being the go-to university whose research could help business and industry with problems to solve.

We kept growing; we kept changing, constantly building on the successes of our past to create solid foundations for our future. Replacing old planks with new wood.

There was a merger – the South Australian College of Advanced Education and the South Australian Institute of Technology – which made us. And some of our successful, world-renowned research institutes were then grown into much larger and more successful operations: the Ian Wark Research Institute which worked side by side with industry to deliver innovations in the fields of energy, biomaterials and minerals research became the Future Industries Institute (FII) which has the end goal of building economic growth through relevant innovation and industry partnership; the Institute for Telecommunications Research, one of Australia’s most significant research centres in the area of wireless telecommunications, created Myriota, a spinoff company that was founded to revolutionise the Internet of Things (IoT) by offering disruptively low-cost and long-battery-life global connectivity. It also created Cohda Wireless, which is the leading supplier of innovative connected vehicle solutions that enable vehicles to connect with other vehicles and with Smart City and mining infrastructure.

One of South Australia’s most successful UniSA spin-off companies, CPR Pharma Services Ltd was formed to help expand the University’s commercial research activities and has since evolved into two companies – Avance Clinical and Agilex Biolabs. Collectively, those companies now employ well over 200 hundred people here in Adelaide and interstate. They're doing contract pharmaceutical research for companies all over the world, with well over $200 million in income since formation.

So we’re growing and changing and while it matters to know your history, and occasionally to count the planks, histories are arguably much more about how we might act now or in the future, for good.