Principal Director of Swinburne, 1986–1992, and Foundation Vice-Chancellor, 1992–2003

Swinburne would not be a university today if it were not for the extraordinary vision and limitless energy of Professor Iain Wallace, its Foundation Vice-Chancellor. It was a matter of breaking down barriers and being prepared to take a long-term view, he says of his legacy. ‘I have been known to stand in front of a large group and say, “This is the destination of the train. If anyone feels uncomfortable with our destination, I suggest you get off at the next station”,’ Iain says.

Professor Iain Wallace
"If anyone feels uncomfortable with our destination, I suggest you get off at the next station."

Iain, a psychologist, arrived in Melbourne from the United Kingdom in 1976, after academic positions in the United Kingdom and the United States, to take up a position as foundation dean of education at Deakin University. He spent a decade at Deakin, later becoming its foundation deputy vice-chancellor, and played a key role in developing that university, before transferring his vision to Swinburne.

It was a potent mix of Scottish determination with a very Australian dream: first to transition Swinburne into becoming Australia’s premier science and technology institution, and second to transform it into an internationally recognised university.

Developing Melbourne’s outer east

The higher education revolution of the late 1980s — a suite of reforms under the banner Unified National System of Higher Education brought in by Hawke Government minister John Dawkins — meant that institutes of technology would either have to merge with universities or seek university status. Negotiating initially for the former but eventually opting for the latter, Iain was central in winning university status with a mission to build campuses in Melbourne’s outer east, resulting in new facilities at Mooroolbark and Lilydale.

"We analysed where our students came from, and more than half came from the east of Melbourne."

‘The Swinburne University Act, which created us, mentions our commitment to developing in the outer eastern region,’ Iain says. ‘We analysed where our students came from, and more than half came from the east of Melbourne.’

‘We bought a school in Mooroolbark which was in liquidation, it had failed financially. It was a strategic decision and we knew that we could demonstrate a commitment to higher education so we got onto it very quickly. When we walked in there were still half-drunk cups of coffee on the tables.’ For Iain, that vignette was a reminder of the cold commercial realities within the world of education.

Becoming a university

Iain took up a role as principal director of Swinburne in 1986. In 1987 he formed a plan to develop the institution into a university. ‘I had really conceived that idea before I applied for the director’s job,’ he says. ‘It was very evident that the institutes of technology in Australia were going to either become universities, or be subsumed by universities. The formalisation of that came with John Dawkins.’

Iain says Swinburne had to appeal to those who were going to make the decision about its status as being an institution which ‘deserved’ university status. ‘There were two main pillars which supported Swinburne’s case to become a university,’ he says. ‘One was research quality. From a zero base when I arrived at Swinburne — it was almost negative. There were people I discovered who were clandestinely engaging in research, they had no encouragement.’

"I encouraged the people who were capable of doing research."

He was central in driving Swinburne’s metamorphosis into a university with a strong research presence, creating areas of excellence known as ‘strategic lighthouses’ casting their light well beyond the university’s borders. ‘I encouraged the people who were capable of doing research and were already on the Swinburne staff. I encouraged them to run up their flags rather than hide. I looked at them and picked the ones I believed were really good researchers and then formalised them by turning their areas into research centres essentially.’

The plan worked. Swinburne became a university in 1992 and the centres of excellence soon thrived. These included the Centre for Applied Neurosciences (which later became the Brain Research Institute), the Centre for Computer Integrated Manufacturing (which became the Industrial Research Institute) and the Centre for Astrophysics and Supercomputing.

Building an international reputation

Iain knew that to build Swinburne University of Technology’s international reputation he needed the best people. ‘The other aspect of us developing our research reputation very rapidly was to go out and recruit young researchers in the areas we defined as areas for the future, like physics,’ he says. ‘Looking around in Australia I realised that physics was on the nose. Universities had de-emphasised physics, they stopped spending money on physics and recruiting physicists. That seems very odd now. Back then it really did happen for quite a few years.

"I had to go counter-trend in building Swinburne’s research presence."

‘I had to go counter-trend in building Swinburne’s research presence. So I looked for areas which were based on physics — areas for the future. If somebody asked me what kind of research Swinburne did, I would say, “We specialise in the very large and the very small”. And the very large was astrophysics.’

It was in astrophysics that Swinburne acquired its first international science superstar: Professor Matthew Bailes, now a world-renowned astrophysicist. ‘I still occasionally interact with Matthew,’ Iain says. ‘Last time I sent Matthew an email I ended with the statement “On to a Nobel!” And I wasn’t joking. He has the capacity to achieve a Nobel Prize; he really is that good.’

Keeping such talent at Swinburne became a mission. ‘I was determined he wasn’t going to leave as long as I was in charge. I’m glad to see my successors have also managed to hang onto him. Matthew was receiving an international offer about once a week.’

Iain made significant changes to the way education was delivered in several key areas, including instigating the recording of lectures and increasing IT infrastructure for students.

Attracting the best people

He understood the importance of positioning the university for research funding to ensure its reputation grew. To do this, he needed to attract the best people in their fields to Swinburne. He knew this would take imagination as well as effort. ‘I devised a method of acquiring staff. It was seen as controversial in the beginning, and it was,’ he says.

"I devised a method of acquiring staff. It was seen as controversial in the beginning, and it was."

‘Rather than going through a process of putting an advert in a paper, if you wanted the best, truly promising researchers in their area, you identified them and put yourself in a position where you would get an appointment with them, sit down with them and say, “I think you’re terrific. If you come and join us you’ll have everything you require”.’

These methods were seen as a little unorthodox but proactive and everyone around him knew his vision. ‘It was very evident to everyone where I wanted us to go.’

Expanding Swinburne

Iain’s footprint goes well beyond Swinburne’s Melbourne campuses. He drove the internationalisation of the university, establishing a school of engineering in Thailand in 1998, which operated for several years. He later initiated the current campus in Kuching in the East Malaysian state of Sarawak. Iain says his career has been something of a calling. ‘I’ve never worked anywhere except a university since the first time I entered one. I think a university environment is the world’s best environment,’ he says. 

"I think a university environment is the world’s best environment."

Iain, now 81, reflects that there were many other people who played an essential part in Swinburne’s development, but for his critical role he feels a ‘quiet sense of achievement’.

‘I’ve always believed that people with ability should be given as much opportunity as one possibly can. You try and create an ideal environment and then get out of the way. Do that and people really rocket. Every one of them deserved it.’

Words by Ian Munro.