University of Melbourne Magazine

The voice for a new era

  • The University’s chief has a lot on his plate, which he is relishing. Peter Wilmoth talks to Vice-Chancellor Duncan Maskell.

    Vice-Chancellor Duncan Maskell | Picture: Chris Hopkins

    Duncan Maskell is well equipped for the role of University of Melbourne Vice-Chancellor. His rich academic career and varied lived experiences are proving – for a thought leader driving the University into a range of new areas both here and globally – extremely useful.

    A microbiologist by training (he did his doctoral thesis on finding vaccines to fight typhoid), Professor Maskell spent most of his adult life at Cambridge University, studying (he was the first in his family to attend university), teaching and then as its Senior Pro-Vice-Chancellor. He arrived in Melbourne late in 2018 with his wife Sarah, also a microbiologist: “We met in the lab at Oxford,” he says.

    His passions include soccer (his childhood dream was to play for Manchester United), cricket (on his first visit to Melbourne in 1994 he attended the venerated Boxing Day Test at the MCG) and AFL football (for years, he watched highlights packages on TV in England and he has chosen Carlton as his team, mainly because he lives opposite the Blues’ Princes Park). “I love AFL,” he says. “When I got here, people were surprised that I knew the rules.”

    We’ve met Professor Maskell at the Ian Potter Southbank Centre, part of the Southbank campus in the heart of Melbourne’s arts precinct. The centre is the new home for the Melbourne Conservatorium of Music (it relocated from Parkville in March). He takes us on a tour of some of the performing spaces and outside to the Linear Park precinct which will host film screenings and music performances. Over the road is The Stables, home to the visual arts students.

    It’s little wonder he’s excited to be overseeing all this cultural activity; music has always been central in his life. Aged 11, he sang the solo part in Benjamin Britten’s 60th birthday concert in London’s Queen Elizabeth Hall and later took up clarinet and saxophone. The band he later joined was once on the same bill as Bob Geldof’s Boomtown Rats. There was even some record company interest. “There were a couple of opportunities we could have taken up,” he says, a touch wistfully.

    “I’m hoping to do exhibitions and festivals and all sorts of other things with the City of Melbourne where we can really leverage our cultural assets and do some really exciting things.”

    He is about as far from the don-in-the-ivory-tower as you could get, which goes some way to explaining why he has settled so well into Melbourne life.

    This eclectic CV will undoubtedly help with the impressively ambitious and diverse array of programs and collaborations Professor Maskell is overseeing for the University: developing the seven‑hectare engineering hub at Fisherman’s Bend and the Melbourne Connect project on the former Royal Women’s Hospital site, “a connected innovation ecosystem in the heart of Melbourne” where academics and industry will get into the same space to interact, he says.

    Its purpose is to place highest-calibre research, industry, government, higher-degree students and other elite thinkers in a single purpose-built precinct. One floor will be devoted to Science Gallery Melbourne, part of an international network designed to bring together students and members of the public to explore science and art.

    Professor Maskell also wants the University to allow greater access to its valuable art collections and for the public to have a better experience of its performing arts. “We are developing the Cultural Commons project,” he says.

    “We want to get our art and cultural objects to be much more visible and accessible to the public. I’m hoping to do exhibitions and festivals and all sorts of other things with the City of Melbourne where we can really leverage our cultural assets and do some really exciting things. I am energised by the possibilities. It’s a big task but I actually thrive on having lots on my plate.”

    Professor Duncan Maskell lighting a flame.

    Professor Maskell taking part in the lighting of the wilin (flame) ceremony at the Wilin Centre for Indigenous Arts and Cultural Development at the Southbank Centre in May | Picture: Drew Echberg

    The various projects will generate jobs and further embed the University into the daily life of Melburnians. “It’s unavoidable that the University of Melbourne is a key part of the city of Melbourne,” he says. “Its foundation stone was laid on the same day as the foundation stone of the State Library … What the University has to do is make sure it’s not just an historical fact but that it’s meaningful here and now.”

    This is far from the only change the University is undergoing. “We all need to bear in mind that universities are constantly evolving,” Professor Maskell says. This includes funding models. International students – predominantly from China – make up a significant proportion of the student body. “I think there is always risk in over dependence on any one particular source of revenue,” he adds. “Are we over-reliant on Chinese revenue? It’s possible we are slightly.

    “I wouldn’t over-egg it though. It’s not too much. If it all changed tomorrow, we would be able to survive for long enough to modify our model.”

    Professor Maskell sees great value in collaborations with other countries. He recently visited India and Indonesia to meet government and university counterparts to discuss opportunities, including collaboration on research projects.

    “We’re not in those countries primarily to recruit students,” he says. “We want to make relationships with those countries. They are big and important countries. We have not done as much as we could with those countries.

    “We need to make good research relationships, academic exchange and student relationships. By doing those things then, yes, we may get more students coming over from those countries as a happy accident.”

    He says any great university has to be international and Melbourne University could lead internationally in some areas – “and, in a sense, do our share of the heavy lifting in terms of global leadership.”

    Back home on campus there are issues to consider around the learning experience, including the future of physical lecture theatres in the face of the digital revolution.

    “Universities worldwide are all struggling to understand how their teaching program will change,” he says. “And it will change with the advent of digital technology, which is moving so fast at the moment that anything we think we can predict we’re probably going to be wrong in 10 years’ time.”

    When at Cambridge, Professor Maskell had posited the view that the university should not build any new lecture theatres, which triggered some pushback.

    “That was a bit of a challenging statement,” he reflects. “It was a challenge to make people think whether they really did need lecture theatres in the future.

    “I don’t know what it’s going to look like in 10 years. What I do know is that most of the students get their factual information from the internet. So, the idea that there’s going to be set-piece lectures for hundreds of students where a bloke like me stands at the front and imparts my wisdom in terms of knowledge download, those days are numbered. However, I do think personal contact is really important.”

    “We need to make sure our students have an outstandingly good experience at the University, that they get all the teaching they need …”

    Professor Maskell likes the idea of deeper collaboration with the corporate world whereby practitioners come onto campus and work alongside academics.

    “I believe very strongly in collaboration. No single person has a monopoly on the good ideas.”

    A corollary is the commercialisation of research, another growth area. “Universities are there primarily to be engines of discovery, to be basic research engines,” he says. “However, if there are things coming out of the research that are translatable, then they should be translated, and I think we should not avoid our obligations to do that translation.

    “And translation, not just commercialisation. There are plenty of things that come out of the University that could be translated for the public good, which are not necessarily easily monetised or commercialised. But commercialisation is also important. If we can translate stuff that we produced and also make it commercially viable and make money out of it, then I think that’s a really good thing.”

    But at its core, the University of Melbourne should “put the students at the heart of everything we do”. “We need to make sure our students have an outstandingly good experience at the University, that they get all the teaching they need … but also get a great deal of other challenges, the ability to expand their minds into other areas. They get taught how to think.”