Brian Smith, Founding Vice-Chancellor

Engineer, technologist, academic, Chair of UniSuper, and Foundation Vice-Chancellor of the University of Western Sydney.

Brian Smith grew up in Elwood, Melbourne. Science-oriented, he took the normal path through engineering at the only university available, the University of Melbourne. He always had the ideal of becoming an engineering academic, though his real interest was in technology and computing. His doctoral program at Cambridge (in the application of computers to steel milling) used the Cambridge EDSAC II computer, one of the three computers then in existence in England at the time. It:

… filled a room about six times the size of [a domestic dining room]. If it got too hot—which in English terms meant if it got above 250 [Celsius] it switched off, and if it got too cold — it got down near zero outside – it also switched off! And I got one run a day on that for five minutes.

After completing his doctoral work, Brian went into industry with Australian Paper Manufacturers (APM, now AMCOR). As one of the few engineers in industry with a PhD, he was in demand as an industry representative on government accreditation panels. Several years later, after some time with a small, high technology company, the loss of a baby son birthed in him the desire to work with young people. He took a job in the Engineering faculty at the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology (RMIT), where over the next several years he rose to the position of Dean of Engineering and finally, in 1979, Principal of RMIT. He oversaw the rapid expansion of RMIT, including through several mergers. He helped introduce strategic planning (then rare in Australian universities) as part of the organisation's normal approach to management, and was invited to join the Hong Kong University Grants Commission (HKUGC), on which he served for 19 years. The latter introduced him to some of the leading university figures from Britain, particularly Asa Baron Briggs, Sir John Butterfield, and Sir Edward Parkes. These Hong Kong links would be helpful when he later came to UWS.

As RMIT expanded, he felt the binary system was 'getting in the way' of research at the top end, and the important benefits of practical education in RMIT's TAFE element. The binary system, however, was run by Federal authorities (the TEC and AE Commissions), and Smith therefore had to work through industry bodies rather than direct representation. As a leader in DOCIT (Directors of Colleges of Institutes of Technology), he was invited into John Dawkins' 'Purple Circle' to provide coherent advice among the welter of opinions on the reform of Australian higher education. The advice of this group — often garnered over dinner where 'Red wine flowed, fuelling conversation' — formed the backbone of Dawkins' Green Paper, which emerged in 1987. The design, which was intended to expand the funding of a simplified higher education sector, was 'seized on' by Canberra as a means of imposing a nationalised, neo-liberal regime for expenditure rationalisation. Dawkins had recognised that the binary system was being honoured in the breach, and at the same time held that universities needed to be much more publicly accountable, and to run in a more businesslike way.

Smith's involvement with DOCIT also brought him closer to many of the people who would become influential in the founding of the University of Western Sydney. He was already well known to Graham Swain and Jillian Maling from their mutual membership of the 1985 Education Services Trade Mission to South-East Asia. By the mid-1980s, he was in a position of national prominence, and was a key articulator of the push to disband the binary system. When Swain was looking to provide Sir Ian Turbott with possible candidates as the foundation Vice-Chancellor of UWS, Smith came to mind. After conferring with Turbott, Swain rang Smith in Melbourne, and said 'Hey, would you think about coming up here [to Sydney]?' and 'it went from there… Graham got me at a good moment.' (Smith 2011.)

Finding a house in the older section of Castle Hill, Smith commenced at UWS in October of 1989. It was quite different to the well-established, expanding, and relatively unitary body he had left. Driving into work on his first day, he found that the chancellery was not yet complete, the Werrington site was covered in site works, and that his offices were in a small brick building on the right of the poplar-lined driveway. 'I had a driver, an administrative officer, and a PA.' Sir Ian Turbott was still 'wooing' Macarthur IHE: finding that Smith already knew David Barr, he encouraged him to 'go and have a chat'. He found it 'astonishing' that the Minister should have so much say in appointing Board members. It was an indicator as to how political the institution of the university had become. The University' Federation structure, however, presented a fascinating experiment, 'an interesting and potentially effective way of running a dispersed academic institution across the vast distances of Western Sydney. I thought that could work very well.' His first duties were to go through the draft university bylaws, scuttled the name 'President' for heads of campuses, and found himself warmly welcomed by a helpful John Ward.

The University, however, seemed to get along quite nicely without him - he would have to make his way quietly. Even resource allocation had already been earmarked by CTEC for the triennium. Operational money was therefore less abundant than capital money, and the shift by the Federal government to a per capita funding model meant that UWS received comparatively less than large, singular institutions. The lack of coherence between the building programs was an inevitable outcome of the histories of each of the campuses, and the fact that each Member was running an essentially separate development program.  

As the triennium in place at foundation began to come to an end, Smith worked with the DVCs — all of whom were contending for enrolment growth — on a model for resource allocation, during which he had to 'referee the fights'. The extraordinary inter-campus cooperation which had been seen prior to the promulgation of the University seemed to have come to an abrupt halt with the appointment of a Vice-Chancellor. Nepean and Hawkesbury disagreed sharply about the desirability of the Blacktown Nirimba campus, and over the introduction of law. On the positive side of the ledger, the University had a regionally-important profile in the Arts, both at Milperra and Nepean. (The Nepean theatre program was, by its nature, comparatively innovative and well known across the city.) Programs in agriculture, horticulture, visual and performing arts, languages and nursing, were well established, engineering was developing at Nepean, Macarthur was diversifying into health sciences, and Hawkesbury was building on the programs in nursing and education before expanding its business programs from the early 1990s. For Smith, the spread of offerings was sufficient: what needed work was the expansion of quality, location and numbers in the programs already being delivered, to convince the potential students of the West that 'they didn't need to get on the train to get to the good universities'.

The task of transforming former Colleges of Advanced Education into a university required the building of a research culture. In the absence of the accumulated assets of older universities, and in pursuit of service to the Greater West, such a culture needed to be 'embedded' in the problems of Western Sydney while engaging in the best of international scholarship. His time at RMIT and in industry informed his values: better a socially-useful research profile achieved the majority of academics (necessarily journeyman scholars) than a flood of useless and ultimately forgettable 'tinkering' in pursuit of the sort of new and intuitive leaps possible for only a few scholars. It was a formula which seemed to escape government officers looking for hard data on which to judge the 'quality' of institutions in order to bring about a more rational(ised) system.

Smith spoke out in the press, pointing out the differences between older and younger universities, the inconsistencies in the comparative data, and the obvious conclusion that 'most of the money will go to those universities who least need it'. Smith's role seemed to devolve into two pursuits: manage the external relationships of the university (including representation to government, fundraising, and community work), and keep the federation together in order to 'give it time'. This was more difficult with Nepean, which resisted cooperation on many levels, including between libraries, with computer systems, accounting services, and the like. Smith kept talking up the principle, that 'where the centre could have delivered, it should have delivered enhanced services', but with little success. Over the course of five years, Smith came to the opinion that the federated structure couldn't work, regardless of who was operating it. While models such as the University of California (UC) system were 'continually quoted' by the federation's key advocates, UC was a statewide system of universities (many of which were world-leading institutions in their own right), run by a centralised body allowing local autonomy. This was quite different to an individual university attempting to run campuses, each of which was in competition with each other and other universities, all in a regulatory relationship with the State, which was also its funding body.

The wearing factor for Smith remained the tension between the Members within the network structure. As Graham Swain would note, 'Brian is a gentle, inquisitive, skilful systems person who likes to make things work.' (Swain 2011.) When the 'system' seemed to stop working towards its own explicit goals, he inevitably grew frustrated. By 1994 he had become dismayed by some of the approaches of Members to relationships with the University, particularly from Maling, whom he found it increasingly difficult to trust. It was not, however, substantially about personalities. Smith's initial faith in the network model itself had been severely dented, and he knew that if he were to continue, he would have needed to 'start from the beginning again' and bring about a more unified structure. 'What UWS has now got is where I believed it needed to head.' Combined with some family issues, then, and despite his own impression that he was in Sydney for the optimal ten-year stretch, at the end of five years of service the Smiths returned to Melbourne.

He left a university with a growing reputation for vocational courses, above-average success in placing its graduates in work, a particular focus on encouraging 'upskilling' and degree completion among mature age students, and a pioneering, intimate sense of association to local campuses. Under his oversight, UWS had 'grown far faster, in absolute terms, than any other university in Australia and [was] seeking to grow even further because it is serving the urban region of Sydney that has been least well served with university places.'

Smith had no immediate need to find new work. He worked in consulting jobs, and was approached to chair UniSuper, the national universities' superannuation body. When he stepped down it was after having served as a 'highly regarded' Chair for more than 10 years (1994-2006). In 1996, he acted as independent analyst to advise on the proposed amalgamation of Murdoch and Edith Cowan Universities in Western Australia. Brian's standing as a technologist was called on when he was made Chair of the Intelligent Manufacturing Systems & Technologies Cooperative Research Centre (1993-2006). He also worked on those humane things which a busy working life had previously denied him. 'I became a failed guitar player; I became a writer', publishing two volumes of short stories and four novels. 'I was made for retirement', he reflects. In 1998, Brian Smith was named in the Queen's Birthday Honour lists as a member of the Order of Australia for service to post-secondary education. He remains active on the board of the RMIT Foundation, and on the psychological and counselling centre, Cairnmillar.