Change, new initiatives and a natural disaster have marked Professor Rufus Black’s first six months as Vice-Chancellor at the University of Tasmania.
Professor Black began his term as the VC of UTas in March, replacing Professor Peter Rathjen.
Since then, Professor Black has led the University through Hobart’s housing crisis, the severe flooding in May and the continued transformation of UTas campuses.
It’s fair to say that the former Master of the University of Melbourne’s Ormond College, and Deputy Chancellor of Victoria University has had a lot on his plate.
Professor Black said he and his family frequently visited Tasmania before making the move down this year, and that his passion for enhancing Tasmania’s potential was a strong personal motivation for assuming the role of VC.
“I love what universities can do in places; their capacity to be at the heart of communities, supporting and helping them and creating opportunities,” he said.
“The University of Tasmania is a university I am passionate about, both in its place and mission that it has.”
Professor Black described the UTas mission as one that aims to serve Tasmania and Tasmanians while contributing to the wider world – particularly in the area of research.
The new VC said he values students and is serious about addressing their concerns.
“The student voice matters. We are seeking to put more of the University leadership closer to students,” he said.
The Hobart housing crisis and the University’s response has been a recurring factor of Professor Black’s first six months as Vice-Chancellor.
In March, UTas announced plans to build a new accommodation complex in Hobart’s CBD, which would house over 400 students. Just two months later, the University additionally announced it had purchased Midcity Hotel, also in the CBD, and would be refurbishing it to provide accommodation for 140 students by Semester 2.
The VC proposed that, when completed, the increased student accommodation should create equilibrium between student housing need and availability. However, the new complex announced in March remains years away from completion.
The Midcity development offers single, twin-sharing and suite rooms, all with catered meals, which can be rented from $267 to $442 per week.
Professor Black said because of Midcity’s layout, highlighting the lack of kitchenettes that the University had to offer a model that was comparable to Jane Franklin Hall.
He recognised that the new UTas student accommodation options may not be an affordable or appropriate option for every UTas students currently struggling with homelessness.
However, he believes that the new accommodation is likely to relieve some of the pressure on Hobart’s housing market, in turn benefiting students looking for more affordable options.
He acknowledged that the University needed to offer a range of choice for students as well as to keep up with demand.
“We have to find a model that enables regional students to have access to affordable accommodation,” he said.
Professor Black said no new accommodation announcements were on the horizon but noted the University was ready to adapt if the market continues to change.
Professor Rathjen’s vision of transforming Tasmania’s three main population centres into ‘university cities’ has continued under the leadership of Professor Black.
In Launceston, the existing campus in the suburb of Newnham will be replaced with a new development that will add to current facilities four kilometres down the road at Inveresk. It is anticipated that students will commence study at the new campus in 2022.
The Cradle Coast campus in Burnie will be relocated to West Park, with an expected completion date of 2021.
Professor Black described the relocation as “one of the biggest architectural projects in the state” that incorporates student, staff and community input.
“We want engagement when creating the future and have frequent conversations with stakeholders,” he said.
Professor Black said the relocation would support Tasmania’s future and bring UTas closer to industry and community services.
“We want to bring campus life to life and develop a vibrant university community,” he said.
Professor Black emphasised that there would be greater opportunity for cross-disciplinary interaction.
“The new campus will build friendships and connections across disciplines and you can only do that if you bring people to a place where connectivity can occur,” he said.
“Our current campuses don’t enable us to do that. The new ones will.”
In Launceston, student accommodation will remain at the Newnham campus for the short term, but will eventually move. The Australian Maritime College (AMC) will remain at its current location.
The future use and re-purposing of the Newnham campus site and facilities remain subject to ongoing discussion and negotiation.
In the South, the Media School moved into Hobart’s CBD and away from the Sandy Bay campus.
Professor Black foreshadowed that major developments regarding the future of the Sandy Bay campus will be released later this year.
He said that the University currently has two options: maintain the current footprint in the CBD and rebuild the Sandy Bay campus, or, consolidate in the city and away from Sandy Bay.
“Whatever happens, we are going to need to invest significantly in our facilities in the South,” he said.
“The buildings at the Sandy Bay campus have reached the point where they are far from providing contemporary support, many of them are at the end of their serviceable life.”
Professor Black said students can expect a “fully digital campus” and a “transformative experience” at the new campuses, and welcomes all feedback from stakeholders, particularly students, about the future of the University.
2018 has been a year of change and surprises. The remainder of the year is already showing signs of further transformation and only time will tell if students will benefit.
NOTE: This article was included in Edition 3 of Togatus.