“How do we become an elite university, without being elitist?” This question was first posed by Provost and Senior Vice-President Peter Booth, but it’s one Director of the Equity & Diversity Unit (E&DU) Tracie Conroy has latched onto with gusto.
“I love quoting Peter - he and Attila both want UTS to be a world-leading university of technology and a sector leader in social justice, but how do we keep our feet on the ground? How do we keep our roots?”
The first step was taken in November last year, when former NSW Minister for Education and Training and Minister for Women Verity Firth was appointed to the role of Executive Director, Social Justice.
“My role has really been brought about in order to tell the very rich story that is UTS's commitment to social justice, equity and access,” explains Firth.
“UTS has a really good record on innovation in this space - there’s the Women in Engineering and IT program and UTS Shopfront. All of that was really quite radical when UTS started it. Now everyone's doing it.
“I’ll be looking at ways we can improve what we’re doing and how we can utilise the amazing research skills of our staff to tackle major social issues and form a big part of the national conversation.”
Already Firth has begun mapping UTS’s current and historical social justice achievements. Conroy, meanwhile, remains focused on heading up the university’s key equity strategies - the Wingara Indigenous Employment Strategy (for staff), and the Widening Participation Strategy and Access and Inclusion Plan (for students). The unit will also significantly contribute to the Athena Swan pilot project which Conroy says, “is probably the biggest gender equity program to occur across the sector in many, many years.”
Likewise, Conroy will continue overseeing E&DU’s programs, including Diversity Week (29 August to 2 September) which features their flagship biennial event, the UTS Human Rights Awards.
“We're a young, dynamic university, we're aspirational, we don't want old-fashioned values attached to us; you know sexism, racism, homophobia,” she says.
“What we do want is to ensure UTS has a culture of safety and respect for both students and staff.”
Similarly, says Firth, “We want to make the student experience something unique. It’s not just about the traditional transition, but focusing on building and creating proper global citizens; a sense of social responsibility and values embedded in the way we teach and the qualities of our students.
“What we know from research is that the sorts of innovation and creative thinking employers are looking for is very closely linked to that sense of social innovation and social entrepreneurism, for want of a better word. We really want to be able to promote that as one of the core graduate attributes UTS students have.
“Universities have a role that's both about allowing the individual to have equality of opportunity, but also contributing to society as a whole.
“It’s not about engaging in an ivory tower sort of way, it’s about actually working with people. And the thing is, UTS has always done that. We’ve always been open to industry and the community and taking a collaborative approach, rather than an elitist approach. And that’s all part of social justice too.”