The Hon John Watkins' Address
I thank you for the invitation to your College dinner and I acknowledge the traditional owners of this place and pay respect to their elders past and present.
I have been Chancellor of UNE for just on 12 months. Increasingly, as Chancellor I find myself thinking back over my own University experience and wondering at the impact it had on me and whether I have sufficiently used the gifts that it provided.
I enrolled in Arts Law at UNSW 40 years ago this year.
Wide eyed and naïve, I had just left an all-boy’s school, had stopped shaving on the last day of my last HSC exam, had long hair, wore beads, king gee shorts and thongs. University was free and the Federal Government also paid a living allowance so I didn’t have to work. I had a girlfriend, played too much sport, read and reread Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings, and listened to Leonard Cohen.
In those days Universities were less serious, probably lower quality, struggling with the influx of the baby boomer generation but still really only available to a privileged minority. I lived at home and wondered why people would need to live in College. I was bright, shy and confused about life.
The 70’s were an odd time, like arriving at a party when the only people left were drunk, desperate or cleaning up.
The 60’s were over. The Vietnam War protest marchers had all gone home. Flower power had run out of steam. Yoko had broken up the Beatles. Marilyn was dead. The first Australian Labor Government in a quarter of a century was self- destructing. We were even bored with going to the Moon.
Looking forward I didn’t have the faintest idea what I wanted to do. I hated the Law Course and knew early that I didn’t want to become a Lawyer. I was enrolled in Sociology and Psychology as part of my Arts degree but found them uninspiring.
Sitting in Psychology lectures that held 1100 students and working out the statistical profile of rats in a maze was only slightly less valuable than Sociology tutorials where my spaced out, sandal wearing tutor believed the curriculum, setting assignments, exams and assessments were a conspiracy against educational freedoms. For him the 1960’s never finished.
I was the first in my family to attend University and the only thing that got me through those degrees was a desire to not offend my parents, and the notion that leaving a task once commenced was a sign of weakness.
I stayed because I didn’t know what else to do and because of the other part of my Arts degree: the absolute delight I took in studying English Literature—Shakespeare, Dickens, Austin, Keats and Melville. I remember lying for hours on the library lawn reading Wuthering Heights and rushing to get to the lectures on Dickens. Eventually that led to a career in teaching English in High Schools and from there into NSW politics for 13 years and then into the not-for-profit-sector.
In the meantime I completed a Diploma of Education and a Master of Arts in English Literature.
Most of my higher education wasn’t vocationally based and it certainly wasn’t part of a thought out plan. Nevertheless it gave me skills, qualifications and opportunities that changed my life.
Even with the Abbott government’s changes to Higher Education, those of us who have the privilege of studying at University like all of us here, will on average, be wealthier in our working lives and have a wider range of career opportunities. We will be more likely to own our own homes and to have better health outcomes. We will travel more overseas and have a more comfortable and secure retirement.
I know that’s not all down to our University education. Family circumstances and individual capacity are strong factors, but it is undeniable that having been at University gives you a leg up in life.
So one challenge for all of us is to consider whether we appreciate the gift of education we have been given. Too many of our fellow citizens don’t get this chance due to family circumstances, location, poverty. They may want to change their lives as much, be as academically gifted, it’s just that the lottery of life has not been as generous.
That is not to mention, of course, the literally millions of people in our region who yearn for the gifts and opportunities we enjoy but will never have the chance to experience.
I figure that we owe it to them to be grateful for what we have, to value it and make the most of the opportunities we have been gifted. And to fight for its retention.
At this time there is a great deal of debate about the future of higher education in Australia; its strength, quality and sustainability. Education, especially at the tertiary level, is being seen as less a common national benefit and more an individual benefit. Both are undoubtedly true, but this is a critical time for the health of higher education and some will impact directly on you. Quite dramatic changes are being mooted. Some will fall by the wayside, but some will inevitably become law.
Our responsibility, yours and mine, is to have the courage, strength and enthusiasm to advocate for the health of the system, so that it remains a strong and viable sector available to as many Australians as possible, and of course, to those from overseas.
Here tonight, in Mary White College, in Autumn in Armidale, it may be hard to believe that we are amongst the most prosperous, comfortable and secure communities that have ever existed on this earth, but by any measure, it is so. And for that we should be thankful.
But I know that those feelings fade. That we also measure our happiness by the subjective surroundings we live in and the experiences we have.
At times when I look back on my University experience, it is with some regret.
I know Chopper Reed and Edith Piaf suggest that we should regret nothing and from what I know of regret, it is a sad and useless emotion but looking back at that time I do have some regrets.
I wish I had travelled more and drunk less alcohol.
I wish I had been kinder to my family and more sensitive to the needs of my girlfriend, who became my wife.
I wish I had listened to more Mozart and less Meatloaf.
I wish I had realised that a sense of humour and empathy were more attractive to women than a good haircut and six-pack (especially as I had neither)
I wish I had worked out earlier that life is uncertain, disordered, frightening and unfair but also mysterious and beautiful beyond measure. That it should be more like the running of the bulls and less like queuing for a bus. That God was more likely to laugh at us than judge us and that time spent in resentment, jealousy and anger was time wasted.
I wish I had been more willing to take risks, to let go and kick off into deeper water. But mostly now half a lifetime later I wish I had been more concerned about the needs of others rather than my own.
And now I am here in Armidale dressed in this rather strange get up wondering about what I wish for you, what I hope UNE can do to help you.
I wish for you to be grateful for all the gifts you enjoy - your college, your friends, your family, and your teachers.
I want you to be happy with your lives, take advantage of the opportunities you have. And have fun. Try new things. Enjoy your friendships and celebrate the enthusiasm of youth.
I want you to work hard at your studies. This University has a world class reputation in teaching and research. You can do exceptionally well here and the harder you work the more you will enjoy it—testing your capacity, satisfying intellectual curiosity, making sense of our world and your place in it.
I hope that you will be less self-absorbed, less judgemental, less individualistic, and more communal.
I hope that you fall in love more than once, desperately foolishly and recover and fall again.
But above all, my wish is for you to practice kindness to all those with whom you share the journey. The friend you haven’t seen for a while but who is in need. The college member down the hall who is struggling with study or relationships. Your colleagues at work and the stranger you see in town.
I hope that you work out a values system that puts the concerns of others upper-most in your mind.
Finally I hope your time here at Mary White College is life changing, exciting, joyful and memorable beyond measure. It needs to be because it’s here that you are building up that stack of memories that will be told and retold at reunions years hence. The recollections with which you’ll entertain your grandchildren and the memories that will comfort you when you are old and wise.
You have come here from far afield. From farms, and cities, interstate and from overseas.
And you will, after a while, leave here for all the unknown paths of your lives.
I am sure people do draw something from places where they have been happy and leave part of their spirit behind.
Your time here will add to the account of all who have preceded you here, and this place will never leave you. You will think of us years hence unexpectedly on a morning when you see mist rising or trees changing colour with the season or when you feel the biting cold of mid-winter, perhaps 40 years from now.
And in that moment you will be back here for a time remembering Mary White College, the friends you had, and the person you were back then, the person you are now, this evening.
For all of you I hope that they will be happy memories and that your journey of life is a blessed and joyful one.