An intuitive academic

Ross Milbourne had some unusual advice when he stood up to deliver his speech to graduating students at the University of Technology, Sydney (UTS) a couple of years ago.

Your parents are proud of you, he told them. “In fact, they will probably never be more proud of you than today, so it is a great day to ask them for a new car, a holiday or a loan.”

Milbourne – a former vice-chancellor (VC) of UTS, who was being awarded his honorary doctorate in recognition of his work in enhancing the university’s reputation and standing at a national and international level – was of course speaking tongue in cheek.

Milbourne says students have it much tougher than when he was an undergraduate. When he started his degree in mathematical economics at the University of New South Wales in the late 1960s, most students were on full scholarships. Graduates didn’t have any problems getting a job, with about 5 per cent of the population attending university.

Today, Milbourne is recognised internationally as an economist and researcher and has had considerable influence on education, research and innovation policy. He has held various positions on the Australian Research Council (ARC), and from 1997 to 2000 served as chair of the Research Grants Committee and as a board member of the ARC.

He retired from UTS in 2014 and in March 2016 became chair of UTS:INSEARCH, a listed company that offers preparation programs to help students enter UTS, especially those who either need English language preparation or academic preparation. He sits on the board of the James N Kirby foundation, which the industrialist founded to distribute grants to community organisations. He is also chair of Crossing the Line, which helps athletes transition to retirement.

Milbourne enrolled in mathematical economics because he was good at maths and interested in economics and one of his high school teachers said that would be a good way to combine those degrees.

After doing his master’s degree he won a place at the University of California, Berkley to do his PhD. At the time, Berkley was the preeminent institution for mathematics and economics and there were many famous scholars in the disciplines. Yet Milbourne chose a relatively unknown junior academic to supervise his thesis, by the name of George Akerlof. “This fellow was really brilliant and I really liked the way he thought outside the box,” he recalls. “Everyone thought I was nuts.”

Akerlof, who is married to US Federal Reserve chair Janet Yellen, went on to win the Nobel Prize in economics.

It is an example, says Milbourne, of backing his intuition, something he has also advised his students to do.

This might sound strange coming from a mathematical economist whose work relies on empirical evidence.

“There’s a lot of cases where you don’t have data. You’ve got to base your decisions about the future, not about the past. So [you should use your intuition] when you don’t have good data, or it’s not clear which way you should go on the basis of any data or any sort of evidence.”

After academic and administrative roles at Queen’s University in Canada, the University of NSW and the University of Adelaide, Milbourne was appointed VC of UTS in 2002.

UTS only came into being as a university in 1988, through an amalgamation of various technical colleges. It therefore didn’t have the reputation or profile of the sandstone universities.

“When I went to UTS I found it to be a fantastic university but it needed to strengthen … its investment decision-making processes and strategies. There was a lot of good people but it needed to build on the good things and improve,” he says. “UTS was a university that used to hide its light under a bushel.”

You've got to base your decisions about the future, not about the past.

The two areas where improvements were needed were in basic infrastructure and research.

Milbourne’s tenure as VC saw UTS climb from a ranking in the 900s among the world’s 30,000 universities to a ranking in the 200s or 300s, depending on the measure. But Milbourne is most proud that the university is ranked the number one university under 50 years old, up from 19th place when he joined.

As VC, Milbourne oversaw the introduction of a new campus masterplan. This involved several new buildings and developments across the university’s various campuses. But the one that attracted the most attention was the new business school building, designed by Los Angeles-based architect Frank Gehry.

A model of the project was unveiled and it quickly divided opinion, with one critic saying it looked like a bunch of squashed brown paper bags. “When you’re doing innovative architecture, if you don’t split opinion, then you haven’t done your job. So, I knew there would be quite a diversity of opinion. But it’s something that, from an architectural point of view and from a positioning point of view, is great branding,” says Milbourne.

“Just before I retired as VC, I remember going down there and looking at it when it was near completion and just standing outside and looking up and just seeing these curves and everything and I became quite emotional, thinking: ‘What have we done to UTS and what have we done to Sydney? This is just amazing’.”

Milbourne says he enjoyed the freedom to work and to think that came with academic life. He particularly liked supervising PhD students.

But the funding cuts that began in the mid-1990s and have continued were a challenge. “As an academic, [the cuts] just made it very difficult to try and fulfil the mission of both education and research, and it still continues to this day to be a difficulty,” he says.

Unlike some of his colleagues, Milbourne objected to the federal government’s plan (since scrapped) to deregulate the higher education sector and allow universities to charge uncapped fees for local students. He upset his fellow VCs by accusing them of “salivating and rubbing their hands at the prospect.”

While he is not opposed to higher fees for high-cost courses or those that will lead to a very high income for the students, Milbourne says governments still have a role. “The government needs to own some responsibility for the education of the students and for the human capital development in Australia and to walk away from that is walking away from an important function that they should be doing,” he says.

The squeeze on funding and the push to have universities earn more of their funding has added to the governance challenge facing higher education institutions. This brings up ethical issues about how universities can operate and find more funding from different funding sources, and at the same time balance their ethical responsibilities and requirements, Milbourne says.

“Universities have to engage in change – change in management and strategic change – and they have to change with the times. The most accessible ways you can change are to take people with you. If you don’t take staff and students and the alumni and others with you on this trip, it’s not going to work.”