AFR Higher Education Awards show universities at their creative best – The Australian Financial Review

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THE winners of all eight categories in the AFR Higher Education Awards 2022, which recognise and celebrate the outstanding efforts of Australian universities during the past year, have now been announced.
The categories include community engagement; emerging leadership; employability; industry engagement; opportunity and inclusion; research commercialisation; and teaching and learning excellence.
Peter Coaldrake has won the 2022 AFR Lifetime Achievement award for higher education. Photo: Jamila Toderas
The past year showed how Australian universities are innovating their way out of the pandemic years.
Among the long list of exceptional entries were many that directly addressed the needs of students and educational institutions during the tumultuous times brought on by COVID-19. Universities responded with brilliance and creativity.
The UNE Medical Mass Vaccination Program, which won the community engagement category, was a creation of the pandemic. By the end of 2021, the clinic had delivered 7100 shots to residents of the New England region, boosting vaccination rates by 40 per cent.
Comprising UNE Medical Centre nurses and GPs, plus an extensive logistics crew drawn from UNE Life ranks, the team has toured Moree, Inverell, Tingha, Ashford, Delungra, Guyra, Tamworth, Tenterfield and Glen Innes administering AstraZeneca and Pfizer vaccines. They also held a dedicated clinic for Indigenous families.
“The entries in the 2022 awards were a really good reminder at this time, of universities at their best, operating as not-for-profit institutions and investing in expertise and knowledge to find novel ways to approach what were really critical circumstances,” says Emeritus Professor Sharon Bell, an anthropologist who has held senior positions in a raft of universities including Western Sydney, Australian National University and Charles Darwin University.
Professor Bell says the awards are an opportunity to throw light on the extraordinary work that universities do, much of it hidden to the general public.
However, these extraordinary projects all transform lives, both within the university community and far beyond its boundaries.
Universities invested in the pursuit of knowledge at the right time, says emeritus professor Sharon Bell. 
Professor Peter Coaldrake received the award for lifetime achievement.
During his 15 years as vice-chancellor of Queensland University of Technology, Professor Coaldrake was famous for greeting visitors to his campus, then bustling them outside towards his Holden Commodore so he could drive around, showing them the sights and developments while humblebragging about why his institution was “number 1 in Queensland”.
Along the way, he would know the names of everyone from the professor at the coffee shop to the guy behind the counter serving lattes, from the postgraduate student striding to class to the gardener weeding the beds.
“It’s got nothing to do with the first-person singular,” he says, deflecting efforts to compliment him. It’s all about his team and colleagues, the people who helped him create the vision.
“Probably the glue that held it all together, of students being proud of their institution, of people enjoying being there and working for QUT, was about issues of culture. Culture is the glue,” he says.
Universities showed creativity and resilience during difficult times, says Stephanie Fahey, former chief executive of Austrade. Louie Douvis
Judge Stephanie Fahey, former chief executive of Austrade, says she was particularly impressed with “how resilient and creative universities were during COVID-19”.
“They not only continued to pursue innovative projects that had been initiated before the pandemic hit, but they also responded to COVID in very creative ways,” Professor Fahey says.
Monash University’s MyDispense program was winner of the Teaching and Learning Excellence Award and unanimously voted by the judges as the standout across all categories.
Another standout program, also based in Melbourne, was the Swinburne Care Leavers Assistance and Support program, which provides intensive personalised support for young people who have come out of foster care and the like. It won the Equity and Access category.
Also in Victoria, the La Trobe Nexus program won the Employability category. Nexus is an employment-based pathway into secondary teaching, that prepares, mentors and graduates selected teaching candidates for economically and culturally diverse, and hard-to-staff schools in Melbourne, regional and rural Victoria.
The winner of the Industry Engagement award was Queensland University of Technology for its Design Robotics transforming Australian manufacturing program. The extraordinary program uses advanced robotics and digital fabrication technologies provide a direct pathway from design to manufacturing.
Also in Queensland, Pure Battery Technologies from UQ won the Research Commercialisation category. Established in 2017 in response to global demand for more environmentally friendly processes for minerals refining to create clean electric vehicle batteries, PBT uses a simple, environmentally superior processing technology which produces high-quality, affordable nickel and cobalt battery materials. A refinery hub will be completed near Kalgoorlie by the end of 2023.
Finally, the winner of the Emerging Leadership category is Professor Elizabeth New from the University of Sydney.
Regarded as one of Australia’s brightest young academics in chemistry, Professor New’s commitment to nurturing the next generation of scientists through the establishment of professional networks and her tireless work improving research culture is notable.
Professor New has been an academic at the University of Sydney, her alma mater, since 2012, attaining the rank of full professor at the age of 36 – despite two periods of maternity leave over the past three years.
Her research leadership has been extensively recognised through numerous national and international prizes, including the Malcolm McIntosh Prize for Physical Scientist of the Year at the Prime Minister’s Science Prizes as well as a number of initiatives with a focus on improving support for early to mid-career researchers, including a university-wide, 1000-member strong, early to mid-career network.
Professor Bell said the quality and range of entries was stunning, but a number of universities didn’t put in a single entry and she would also like to see more from non-university providers.
“We only have visibility on a small fraction of what goes on in universities,” Professor Bell said, adding that the research commercialisation and industry engagement categories had relatively low entry numbers.
Professor Fahey was equally impressed noting that a few stand-out entries seemed at odds with the category they were entered in and might have done better if placed elsewhere.
“There were some fabulous submissions that just didn’t quite tick all the boxes or quite fit within the category,” she says.
Finally, Professor Fahey says she hopes all universities take the time to explore the winners and runners-up and see what they can take away from the depth of creativity and innovation contained within them.
“I’d encourage all universities to read the submission. Rather than reinventing the wheel, you can see best practice right here, where it has been created by these universities. The most important thing about documenting best practice, is so that others might learn from it. And that is what is really important about the awards,” she says.

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