In an environment where facts are increasingly ignored unless they support someone’s world view, the value of universities is startlingly clear, writes Vice Chancellor Professor David Lloyd.

I have often pointed out that, in common with the rest of Australia, UniSA has a schizophrenic attitude about our age. 

In Australia’s case it is a land inhabited for more than 60,000 years by the Aboriginal people but it is still a young nation, measuring its years from the time Captain James Cook pulled ashore at Inscription Point at Botany Bay in 1770.

So we are a nation both 60,000 and 247 years old.

UniSA is like that. Last year we celebrated our 25th year as a university but our antecedent institutions, those great schools of art and mining and industry that made us, that connected us to industry and the professions to help solve their problems, stretch back to the mid-19th century.

Although we had the years, some thought we lacked the gravitas that the sandstone universities claim as their space.

But being young gave us an opportunity to take advantage of that youth, of our agility and our flexibility to drive our university in a different direction.

We live in interesting and demanding times and we know there are countless opportunities for nimble, focused institutions to respond to local, national and global challenges.

That’s why we became Australia’s University of Enterprise, to create new professionals capable of operating on a global scale through our teaching and to translate fundamental and curiosity-driven research into practice by providing new solutions for problems and new ideas for industry and society.

Being old gives us a long history of working closely with business and the professions, and they know that we are in the business of partnering with them to find the answers to their questions, and to provide their next generation of professionals.

Being young gives us a great advantage. We’re not stymied by decades, if not centuries, of past practice. We are able to use innovative methods of teaching or conducting research. It offers us an element of daring that more established peers might not be willing to risk, either because of a fear of tarnishing an established reputation, or because of inherited structures and processes that encourage a more conservative approach.

Just look at the innovation of our research in this issue: smart wearables created by our Wearable Computer Laboratory; our School of Commerce using eye-tracking technology to work out how people interpret financial data; or the world first use of conductive polymers in our Future Industries Institute which will have a positive impact on everything from the health of farm soil to drug delivery. The Centre for Cancer Biology is developing a new generation of coronary stents (which keep open the arteries that supply blood to the heart) that will reduce the likelihood of the body rejecting them as a foreign device. You can read about all of these in the story Evolutionary Innovation

We have worked assiduously to build partnerships both in Australia and overseas so that we create and innovate to add value to our community and to attract the best people to join us as students, academics and professionals.

Any successful university is a global institution. At UniSA we are developing the collaborations we need with the science, technology, biotech, cultural and economic powerhouses of the world so that the products of our teaching and our research can be useful globally. 

Our research is already making an impact. Our teaching is producing graduates who can take their place in a national or a global professional economy. We start their internationalisation process the minute we engage their curiosity and teach them the value of new experiences, perhaps help them learn another language and give them the opportunity to travel. 

We know that multinationals, wherever they are based, all face a common problem: developing leaders who can manage global enterprises and take advantage of strategic opportunities. We are doing what we can to alleviate this global problem by graduating people into these potential leadership roles who will always be open to new ideas.

Unfortunately we all live in an environment where facts are ignored or considered ‘alternative’ or ‘optional’; where people choose to believe the stories that support their world view. 

That’s when the purpose of universities becomes startlingly clear. No matter what the degree earned by a graduate, they have all been taught to think. To seek facts. To uncover truth. And to build a worldview that is true to their ethical system and still leaves room for doubt from which further growth will come.

We graduate people who, we hope, are committed to truth seeking. At our recent graduations in March I urged new graduates to be aware of the difference between data, information, knowledge and wisdom, the so-called DIKW hierarchy which is part of the language of information science. I reminded them that Data are the facts of the world; Information is linking that data into concepts and ideas; Knowledge is organising that information into chapters or frameworks; and Wisdom is integrating that knowledge into systems, beliefs, principles and truths.

The topic of post truth is covered in this issue with reports that the tradition of evidence-based reasoning has been undermined and therefore, increasingly, people are more likely to start with a view and simply find content to support that view. We are teaching and graduating people who can think for themselves, who have been trained to source information and to create a balanced mindset, to evaluate information, and to act thoughtfully in response. 

We congratulate ourselves every time a new world ranking shows we have climbed ever higher in the young universities list. How much more valuable would it be to be ranked according to how many cultured and useful citizens we produce?