UNSW's 70th year anniversary celebration

18 October 2019

Speaker: Jennifer Westacott AO

Venue:  Roundhouse, UNSW Kensington campus

Delivery: Thursday, 17 October 2019


As I stand here tonight, it’s tempting to think pomp and ceremony.

Instead, I see the pursuit of excellence.

And, it’s that pursuit that has made our country what it is today.

A country of twenty-five million people.

The thirteenth largest economy with some of the highest living standards in the world.

Our pursuit of excellence is driven out of an education and research system that has positioned Australia at the forefront.

So many industries, so many discoveries, so many ideas that have transformed the way we live, many of them from this university.

But these days, I fear our pursuit of excellence is being eroded.

Tonight, I want to briefly talk about rewards and recognition, and standards.

Ambition, reward, and recognition drive achievement.

But I get profoundly depressed when I hear that in some places young people don’t get marks anymore for assignments – it’s either satisfactory or not.

Prizes are not talked about.

Teams don’t win – they have fun and participate.

I understand all the forces that have led us to this point but we have to ask is this the best we can do for our young people?

Or, is there more we can do to lift our young people up, including those who are struggling?

On standards, I have to ask: are we serious about lowering the ATAR or NAPLAN?

By all means make them work better but don’t lower them.

Let’s look at where Australian high school students rank against high performers in Singapore and Finland.

We’re falling behind on maths, English and science.

If we lower the bar, we’ll end up failing our students, especially those from disadvantaged backgrounds.

We’ll end up failing our country because we won’t have the skills and research to support the new jobs and the new industries.

Our skilled citizens and our natural endowments will be the greatest contributor to a new generation of growth and prosperity.

So, let’s pull out all stops to encourage the pursuit of excellence. and work even harder to make sure we drive fairness and equality through shared opportunity.

I want to reiterate the Business Council’s clarion call for a national inquiry into entrenched disadvantage.

It frightens me that some children grow up in a household where they have never seen anyone go to work.

We must do everything we can to ensure that family circumstances and the learning environment help lift students up.

The two most important honours in my professional life have been the humbling experience of receiving an Order of Australia, and the privilege of being awarded an honorary doctorate from this wonderful institution.

I mean, imagine a kid from a housing estate receiving an AO and an honorary doctorate?

These honours are the product of a system that applauded excellence, not a system that said: “You’re from a disadvantaged family or you’re a girl, so we’ll lower the standard on your behalf.’’

Sometimes, I have to pinch myself where I ended up and tonight is one of those nights.

I’m standing here with the Governor-General of Australia and one of the nation’s most successful business women.

This university has rewarded our talent.

It has rewarded: our effort, our ambition, our sense of purpose, and our pursuit of excellence.

But sadly, I have to say that I don’t believe a student today in my childhood circumstances would have the same circuit breakers.

So, please we cannot for a minute longer let another young person flounder.

Let’s give them: the encouragement, the support, the confidence, the resilience, the self-belief, the high standards, the recognition and reward, so they can pursue excellence and be the best they can be

And, as a nation, we can truly be the best that we can be.

Thank you.


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