Seventy years on: our alumni celebrate at Parliament House

Published 04 December 2008

vcand-governor.jpgAn anniversary dinner at Parliament House, Sydney, last week celebrated the achievements of Australia’s oldest regional university and the vital role of that university in facing the world’s newest challenges.

Her Excellency Professor Marie Bashir AC CVO, Governor of NSW and Chancellor of the University of Sydney, was an honoured guest at the dinner, on Tuesday 25 November, to mark the 70th anniversary of New England University College (NEUC) the college of the University of Sydney that developed into the autonomous University of New England.

The guest speaker at the dinner was one of UNE’s most distinguished graduates, Dr Bridget Ogilvie AC DBE. Dr Ogilvie, a world-renowned medical scientist and Fellow of The Royal Society, said that her “excellent education in the sciences” at UNE had been the “bedrock” of her career. “Excellence in agricultural research has long been a UNE strength,” she said, “and its importance has never been greater than now as we face the problems of climate change, driven as they are by the booming world population.”

Dr Ogilvie was the first student in UNE’s Bachelor of Rural Science (Honours) degree program to graduate with a University Medal. She went on to a highly successful career in medical science in the UK, before becoming Director of the British medical research charity the Wellcome Trust (1991-1998) and founding Chair of Medicines for Malaria Venture. In 1996 she was made a Dame Commander of the Order of the British Empire (DBE), and in 2007 a Companion of the Order of Australia (AC).

In her speech, Dr Ogilvie said that she had "watched what has happened to universities in the UK and here with intense interest”. “Universities are one of the most enduring human institutions, but I doubt if ever in history they have had to change as much as in the last two to three decades,” she said.

“As the size of the university student population has increased,” she continued, “so has bureaucracy and interference by governments“ a perfect storm of regulations and requirements with a simultaneous progressive reduction in the unit of resource provided by the taxpayer per student.”

“If our universities are weakened by financial problems,” she concluded, “more and more future students will be educated abroad“ something that is already happening in the UK, albeit on a small but growing scale.”

Many other distinguished graduates of NEUC and UNE (which gained autonomy from the University of Sydney in 1954) attended the anniversary dinner, along with past and present staff members, donors, and University officials“ including the Chancellor-elect, the Hon. Richard Torbay MP, and the Vice-Chancellor, Professor Alan Pettigrew. Among the guests were Mrs Anne Harris, granddaughter of T.R. Forster, whose donation of the large country residence “Booloominbah” to the University of Sydney enabled the establishment of NEUC, and Miss Mary Madgwick, daughter of UNE’s first Vice-Chancellor, Sir R.B. Madgwick.

Professor Pettigrew outlined the growth of the College and University from their beginnings in 1938, saying that the gathering at the dinner was “indicative of the range of people who continue to have a strong and meaningful association with the University”.

He remarked on the world-wide network of NEUC/UNE alumni that can turn a chance encounter into a bond of common associations, mentioning his discovery that very evening that Professor Bashir’s sister is a UNE graduate, as well as the Governor’s aide-de-camp, Lieutenant Commander Rick Stone, who accompanied her at the dinner.

As an example of the reminiscences being shared at the event, Professor Pettigrew read out a message from NEUC graduate Terence White. “My late wife Pat and I met as 17-year-old first-year students at NEUC in 1948,” Mr White wrote. “The student enrolment was a mere 200 or so, and this was a significant factor in the formation of strong bonds of friendship which endure among many of us to this day. We share fond memories of the near-idyllic existence that we enjoyed in those early years.”

Many “fond memories” were shared (and old photographs produced and scrutinised) by several generations of alumni at last week’s dinner – memories that testified to the continuity of UNE’s traditions of excellence in education. “I appreciate what UNE did for me,” Dr Ogilvie said, “and am very glad to be able to say so tonight.”

THE PHOTOGRAPH displayed here shows Professor Alan Pettigrew with the Governor, Professor Marie Bashir. Clicking on this image reveals a photograph of (from left) Miss Sue Francis (UNE Bachelor of Science graduate, 1965), Dr Geoff Fox (Interim Chair UNE Foundation; UNE Bachelor of Science graduate 1966, PhD 1971) and Dr Bridget Ogilvie (UNE Bachelor of Rural Science with Honours graduate 1960).