The early decades of the 21st century are proving to be challenging for universities globally. Constant comparisons both within the sector and across sectors – with which we do not necessarily agree and which beg many questions – are taking place in political, economic and cultural environments not necessarily sympathetic to higher education.

We are evermore expected, rightly so, to justify ourselves; even as we compete. We do so in a complex international media environment, in which our words may not be reported as we wish them to be, and the issues that confront us may be misrepresented or ignored, and often are lacking in evidence.

All of us face the challenge of finding a way forward – more, a way to succeed and thrive. I believe that The University of Western Australia (UWA) has found that way in the UWA 2030 vision, officially launched in April 2019.

We have more to do in embedding that vision as a Western Australian vision in which we play the leading intellectual role, but great work has begun. This great work reorients us – turning our gaze outward across the Indian Ocean. We have committed to test and measure ourselves in one of the most dynamic regions of the world. By raising our sights and setting our minds and energies to becoming the intellectual hub of the Indian Ocean Rim, we will raise our performance. With a focus that has the potential to unite us with our communities, it may be a difficult thing to accomplish in testing times for any institution, but I believe that we are already on the way.

In these dynamic circumstances, 2019 has been another year of significant achievement and improvement for UWA. The ‘Be Inspired’ campaign helped us to acquire greater innovative capacity and diversity. There have been marked improvements in pure mathematics (now ranked well above world standard), astronomical and space sciences, physical chemistry, medical and health sciences, history and archaeology, human geography, plant biology, geology, oceanography, and electrical and electronic engineering.

The University is ranked in the top five in the world for mineral and mining engineering and the top 10 for marine/ocean engineering and clinicalmedicine; the top 15 for marine/ocean engineering; the top 20 for agricultural sciences and environmental science; the top 25 for anatomy and physiology, ecology and sport-related subjects; the top 30 for oceanography; the top 40 for civil and structural engineering and earth and marine science; and the top 50 for psychology.

In the Quacquarelli Symonds (QS) World University Rankings, UWA improved five places to 86 in 2019, as part of an ongoing improvement of 16 places in three years. We remain in the top 100 of the Academic Ranking of World Universities (ARWU), have improved in the Times Higher Education rankings and over the same three years, we have risen 18 places in the National Taiwan University (NTU) rankings.

Nationally, UWA has been recognised in the Engagement and Impact Assessment 2018-2019 National Report, which provides a snapshot of how university research translates into real-world benefits for society. We received the highest ratings for Western Australian universities on all items scored: impact, approach and engagement. The area of student recruitment and experience can be a fraught one for many universities, but we have done well. Our Future Students Centre won the Association of Tertiary Education Management award for Customer Service Excellence, with an increase of 20 per cent on their 2018 score.

At the end of March, we officially launched IQX – an innovation, coworking and event space operated by the University in partnership with Business Foundations, providing connections between researchers, students and entrepreneurs. This was followed in June, when we piloted UWA’s new Industry Sabbatical program, embedding a UWA researcher in a local business for up to 60 working days.

In August, the Commonwealth Government announced that 11 world-leading health and medical research projects at UWA would receive $17 million in funding.

The year was rounded off with UWA Emeritus Professor Cheryl Praeger being awarded the Prime Minister’s Prize for Science. The Prime Minister’s Literary Award for non-fiction was won by our Associate Professor Tanya Dalziell and Adjunct Associate Professor Dr Paul Genoni of Curtin University for the book they collaborated on.

We have received national recognition and considerable international interest for our work on academic freedom and free speech. The Chancellor’s Review (prepared at the request of the Minister for Education, the Hon. Dan Tehan) and the UWA Statement produced by our Freedom of Expression Working Group, have placed UWA at the forefront in this area, helping calm a potentially heated situation.

As Vice-Chancellor of UWA, and Chair of the Go8, I was invited to be a member of Minister Tehan’s taskforce of five Vice-Chancellors to advise him on the next wave of Higher Education reform. The taskforce has already discussed the critical issue of university-industry engagement, commercialising research and forming greater linkages between universities, industry research and employment. All of which are essential ingredients of, all our UWA 2030 vision and our Strategic Plan for 2025.

This is my last Annual Report as Vice-Chancellor of UWA, and so I wish to note my gratitude and appreciation to all the staff for their dedication, commitment and efforts on behalf of the University and those we serve. It has been an enormous privilege to steward the University through fundamental transformation, growth and change during the past six years and I am confident that the University will continue to maintain its status as a fine institution of Higher Education, meeting and exceeding the expectations of the students, alumni, communities and industries and all those we serve globally.

Professor Dawn Freshwater