Dr Bill Scales AO

Swinburne chancellor, 2005–2014

Estimated reading time: 6 minutes 51 seconds

To a relatively newly minted university, the appeal of drafting Bill Scales to take the position of chancellor in 2005 was, in retrospect, obvious. Versed in public policy in both industry and economics, Bill had served in bipartisan roles as chairman and chief executive of the national Industry Commission, the precursor to the Productivity Commission and as secretary of Victoria’s premier’s department.

He was about to leave his senior executive role with telecommunications corporation Telstra and had a career in manufacturing behind him. Plus, alongside the late Senator John Button, he had implemented a visionary plan for the car industry. By the time Swinburne came knocking Bill was an officer of the Order of Australia in recognition of his services to industry, and had been awarded the Centenary Medal for outstanding service to industry and commerce.

To Bill himself, the fit was not so clear. His instinct was to reject the approach, but in the past his practice had been to explore his options before making a commitment. So he investigated Swinburne and found an institution that mirrored his own education path.

Just a boy from Footscray

Bill Scales left school in 1961, aged just 14, anxious for his next birthday so he could begin an apprenticeship as a fitter and machinist. ‘We were a typical working-class family. My mum and dad had left school in year eight,’ Bill says. What he might have added was that, born and raised in Footscray his family identity was inextricably bound in the colours of the Western Bulldogs football team.

‘My mother ferried me in a pram to my first game at three months of age,’ Bill recalls. Later, among his many roles in public life, he would serve on the club’s board, and he proudly attended both Bulldogs’ premiership wins in 1954 and 2016. 

‘I just somehow intuitively understood that I needed to know how the world works.’

While finishing his apprenticeship studies at Footscray Technical College, Bill completed the remaining three years of secondary education. He attended a succession of local schools that were teaching the subjects he wanted to study of an evening. ‘I don’t know what it was, really, I just somehow intuitively understood that I needed to know how the world works,’ he says. ‘And education was a means by which I could do that.’

Bill was assigned to a management position at the age of 20, once he had completed his apprenticeship. In his 30s, he managed an automotive components manufacturer in the eastern suburbs, while completing an economics degree at Monash University, again studying at night.

Making a contribution to Swinburne

So while he had some exposure to university life, his first reaction to Swinburne’s inquiry regarding the role of chancellor, which came through council member Kathy Townsend, was that he had little to offer.

‘I was a bit surprised by it really, because I hadn’t thought that I could make much of a contribution to a university, particularly in the role of chancellor,’ he says. ‘I agreed that I would meet up with Kathy to find out a bit more. As it turns out I found an enormous synergy between what Swinburne was doing, its history and my own education history.’

‘I found an enormous synergy between what Swinburne was doing, its history and my own education history.’

‘It had started as a technical college, become a college of advanced education, and more recently a university. And I quickly realised that Swinburne had a student cohort that was very much consistent with my own background – with part-time students, an emphasis on science and engineering, and encouraging people to transition from vocational training into university – and it became clear I just might be able to make a contribution.’

Becoming Swinburne the university

That Swinburne was an institution in transition was almost immediately apparent. ‘My first impression was that it had a long and distinguished history, but it was a very new university and it was still trying to come to grips with what it meant to be a university,’ Bill recalls. ‘When people would talk to me they would often talk about “Swinny Tech”, which was endearing, but it wasn’t its future. 

‘There was a very deliberate desire to build an institution that was outstanding in its teaching and scholarship, and outstanding in its research.’

‘What we had to do – the collective, vice-chancellor Ian Young, his team and the council – was to build on the good foundation and begin developing and implementing a long-term strategy to put Swinburne in the position of being an outstanding university over the next 25 to 50 years.’ This vision was fully embraced by Professor Linda Kristjanson, who was to replace Professor Young as vice-chancellor, Bill says.

‘In addition to maintaining a focus on the employability of our students, there was a very deliberate desire to build an institution that was outstanding in its teaching and scholarship, and outstanding in its research, and we began to set about doing that,’ Bill says. There was also a deliberate decision not to be a general university in the manner of its long-established peers. Instead, Swinburne would be a specialist university based around outstanding science and technology and related areas, including business.

A university for everybody

That demanded new resources and facilities. The campus was redeveloped and with that came the creation of the Advanced Technologies Centre, opened in 2011, and the Advanced Manufacturing and Design Centre, opened in 2014. Bill says that credit for Swinburne’s growth and development is shared among the collective, which bought into the strategy for its future. 

‘The world was rapidly changing around us and we needed to change with it.’

‘The thing I thought the university had not quite yet understood were the significant changes buffeting Australian society. Some industries were rapidly declining and others were expanding. The workforce was changing before our eyes: I was observing so many careers in which women were becoming the dominant force,’ Bill says.

‘I was observing within the law that there were more women graduates than men, and that women were becoming more dominant in the accounting profession. In addition, there were more people deciding to work part time and many deciding to work for themselves. The world was rapidly changing around us and we needed to change with it.’

Bill had a clear view of Swinburne’s role within a modern Australia: he believed it must be a welcoming place for everybody and every idea. ‘For Swinburne to take its rightful place in Australian society, it had to be a safe place for people to think differently, to act differently, to debate things that might be objectionable in another environment. If universities like Swinburne weren’t safe places for the contest of ideas, it would be hard to find places that were.’

‘I have always felt comfortable with pretty well anyone I have met and felt l as though I could learn something from them.’

Bill is also credited for his part in fostering a safe place for students of differing backgrounds, ages, ethnicities, sexual orientations and cultures to learn and develop. ‘Starting with my working life as an apprentice fitter and machinist and throughout my whole career, I had met all sorts of people, and I learned to respect enormously their contribution to society,’ Bill says. ‘I have always felt comfortable with pretty well anyone I have met and felt l as though I could learn something from them.’

A university to be proud of

In 2014, in recognition of his commitment to leadership and lifelong learning, Bill was awarded an honorary doctorate from Swinburne.

The progress Swinburne made during Bill’s period as chancellor can be measured by the continued focus on student employability, in the new buildings, the welcoming of students from diverse backgrounds, the safe and inclusive student facilities, and its entrenched position as one of the world’s top 400 universities.

But there is a more prosaic measure: while Swinburne’s impressive past was the foundation stone for its development as a world-class university, the world that Swinny Tech once inhabited is no more. This new world has helped create its replacement, a university of which Australia can be proud.