Stepping up to the challenge

15 December 2020

Professor Deborah Terry AC joined UQ as its new Vice-Chancellor and President in the midst of enormous disruption caused by the pandemic. Here she reflects on 2020, the response of the UQ community to COVID-19, and the role of universities in pandemic recovery.

You only need to stop and reflect, momentarily, on what you were doing this time last year to realise that 2020 has been something of a bewildering whirlwind.

The confounding nature of 2020 is best summarised by the way that it has warped our sense of time. Although this year seems to have gone on forever; it’s equally hard to comprehend that it’s now almost over!

When I originally accepted the appointment as UQ’s next Vice-Chancellor in December 2019, I didn’t in my wildest imagination consider that crossing the border from Western Australia to Queensland might become a barrier to me taking up the position.

In the end, thankfully, the border restrictions between Western Australia and Queensland lifted and my move back to Brisbane, in late July, became a relatively routine logistical challenge.

My first day as UQ’s Vice-Chancellor, on 3 August, coincided with the start of second semester. This was a happy occasion for staff and students alike, because it was the first time in over four months that we had been able to have face-to-face teaching on our campuses. 

So, I was fortunate to return to UQ at a time when the most disruptive impacts of COVID-19 had already passed for Queensland. Nonetheless, I have been struck, repeatedly, by the resilience of the UQ community as we have collectively negotiated our way through the many uncertainties and challenges created by the pandemic.

Pivot to online in Semester 1

Prior to my return to UQ, there was the incredible effort made by our teaching staff in Semester 1 to suddenly pivot to online learning. In the space of just one week – from 16 to 20 March – UQ’s staff worked incredibly hard to transition 1529 courses to online delivery. By doing so, they kept our students engaged in learning – and progressing towards graduation.

In the weeks that followed, as the nationwide lockdown came into effect, around 6700 UQ staff quickly shifted to working from home, while another 1300 staff remained on campus to maintain our grounds and facilities, and ensure the continuity of essential research. 

Supporting our students

The UQ community also pulled together to provide much-needed support for the thousands of students who were facing hardship because of the pandemic. We established the COVID-19 Student Emergency Support Fund, with the University matching every dollar donated by our staff and donor community to immediately double the impact of their giving. In total, $1 million in grants was distributed via the Fund to 1300 students facing hardship. 

Meanwhile, an army of staff volunteers led by Student Services also played an important role in alleviating hardship by providing more than 9000 food hampers and 28,000 free meals to students this year.

As a globally connected university, we were expecting around 17,000 international students on our campuses in early 2020. However, as international borders closed, many of these students couldn’t make it into Australia. 

Despite this, most of our international students have continued with their studies this year. In Semester 2, for instance, around 7500 of our students have undertaken their studies, purely online, from an offshore or interstate location. Given they couldn’t be here with us on campus, we established a UQ Virtual Village that enables our offshore students to connect with their fellow students, online.

Universities and pandemic recovery

As we approach the end of this very disruptive year, it is comforting that Australia – and Queensland, in particular – has had real success in slowing the spread of the virus. 

This is largely due to the fact that university-based researchers and scientists have been visible in the media on a daily basis, sharing public health advice. 

This expertise has filtered into our public discourse – and it’s influenced the community’s very positive response to the COVID-19 restrictions and the public health measures.

Our researchers are leading the fight against the virus in other ways, too. For instance, our medical scientists are working with clinicians to develop better treatments for COVID-19. UQ researchers even developed a method of detecting viral fragments in wastewater as an early indicator of community outbreaks of the virus.

And, of course, we also have a brilliant team at UQ who spent most of 2020 developing a very promising COVID-19 vaccine. Thanks to the support of UQ’s incredible alumni and donor community, as well as Government and industry partners, their candidate was fast-tracked at a record rate and successfully passed Phase 1 clinical trials. The exceptional efforts of everyone involved cannot be understated.

When we do, eventually, emerge from the other side of this pandemic, I’m convinced that UQ – and Australia’s universities, generally – will play a vital role in driving Australia’s economic recovery in two really significant ways.

First, the university sector will play an important role in supporting our graduates with lifelong learning, so they are gaining the skills required for the future of work. That means offering more skills-based learning opportunities, such as micro-credentials and executive education, to enable our graduates to continuously adapt to changing workplace needs.

The other essential contribution that universities will make to Australia’s economic recovery is by partnering closely with industry and government to cultivate Australia’s innovation ecosystem. There is growing recognition that our home-grown research and development (R&D) has the potential to generate entirely new industries and jobs for Australians. By creating that collaborative culture and a more effective innovation ecosystem it will enable us to translate more of our ground-breaking R&D into commercial and societal benefits for the whole nation.

Happy new year

In the midst of managing our way through the daily disruptions created by the pandemic, it has been difficult to conceive that 2020 has also ushered in a lot of change that will ultimately prove to be beneficial for Australia and the wider world. Perhaps next year we will gain the space and the perspective to recognise some of those benefits.

From my perspective, it’s been uplifting to be welcomed back into the UQ community this year. I’m especially thankful to our staff and the alumni community for the warmth that you’ve shown me – and the generosity that you continue to show towards your alma mater. Thank you!

My hope for 2021 is that the whole world gets access to multiple effective vaccines and that these vaccines bring the pandemic to a swift end. I hope we can re-open our borders; re-unite with our loved ones; and return to enjoying all the fine things in life that we’ve missed this year – including travel, the arts, sport and face-to-face learning.

So, I genuinely mean it when I say: Happy New Year!


Prior to commencing as UQ’s Vice-Chancellor and President on 3 August 2020, Professor Deborah Terry AC served as Vice-Chancellor of Curtin University in Perth for six years. Professor Terry has a long association with UQ, having worked in a range of academic and leadership positions at the University from 1990 to 2014.

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