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Chancellor reveals her vision for the University of Tasmania

WHEN Alison Watkins began studying at the University of Tasmania 40 years ago, she never expected that she would one day be leading it as the first female Chancellor.

From the Mercury newspaper

WHEN Alison Watkins began studying at the University of Tasmania 40 years ago, she never expected that she would one day be leading it as the first female Chancellor.

Ms Watkins replaced former Chancellor Michael Field, officially taking on the position in June 2021.

Looking back at the road that led her to lead the university, Ms Watkins said going to university wasn’t something she necessarily gravitated toward.

“I grew up in country Tasmania, mostly living on the East Coast and I went to school in Hobart at Collegiate and was a boarder there,” Ms Watkins said.

“I didn’t come from a family that particularly went to university – neither of my parents went to university.

“The decision back then to go to university was more good luck than good management,” she said.

Ms Watkins decided on a Bachelor of Commerce, sidelining her other choice of Agriculture College, which she would have needed to leave the state for.

She said the university experience had changed since her time.

“My experience was a wonderful experience, but it’s light years away from the experience of a student today,” Ms Watkins said.

“The only way to hear a lecture was to attend a lecture. You’d spend all day studying in the library, you’d go to the refectory or lunch, you’d finish up at the bar – it was a wonderful and concentrated on the campus experience,” she said.

Something that’s also changed was the make-up of commencing students, Ms Watkins said.

“Today I think we have less than 20 per cent commencing students are school - leavers,” she said.

“We have something like 40 per cent of our students studying part-time. And half of them are working at the same time as they’re studying – it’s a very different experience.”

After she graduated, Ms Watkins and her husband Rod, who she met at the University of Tasmania, moved to Sydney.

“These possibilities led me through a career that’s involved 15 years in professional services, accounting and consulting, and 20 years in leadership roles,” she said.

Now she’s based in Victoria and frequently returns to Tasmania. Ms Watkins said being back in the state was surreal.

“It’s a tremendous opportunity for me to give something back,” Ms Watkins said.

“Tasmania and the university have an exciting future and it’s wonderful to play some sort of role.”

Something she hopes to help achieve is better tertiary education rates in Tasmania.

“I think there’s an opportunity to do more, that’s evident in the educational outcomes for Tasmania overall as a state,” she said.

“We need as a university to play our part in creating a culture and environment for kids to first and foremost, get through school.

“We need better educational outcomes. The university has a critical role to play in that.”

On the controversial campus move from Sandy Bay to Hobart city, Ms Watkins said it was important to have state-of-the-art facilities.

“The current facilities we have at Sandy Bay are very run down and out-of-date,” Ms Watkins said.

She said the campus move would make the university more accessible, especially to Tasmanians.

“We’re all about making higher education a possibility for everyone and first and foremost Tasmanians,” Ms Watkins said.

She said that the move and realising the potential of the Sandy Bay campus would set the university up in the future.

“Realising the value in the Sandy Bay campus over a number of years … underwrites the future of the university,” Ms Watkins said.

“So many universities get caught in a hand-to-mouth existence through solely relying on government funding.

“That will enable us to fund the future of the university for many generations to come,” she said.

As for the onslaught of criticism levelled at the university and the push to stop the move altogether, Ms Watkins said it showed the passion of the community for the university.

“It shows there are a lot of people who really care about the university and its future.

“I think that passion is a positive indicator that people care,” she said. “I recognise it’s not a simple decision, it’s not a black-and-white decision.

“I do think the overall direction is the right direction.

“I think it’s really important to be listening and making sure we are understanding the various perspectives,” Ms Watkins said.

This article was published by The Mercury online on 3 April 2022 and in the print edition on 5 April 2022.