Federation University vice-chancellor Professor David Battersby graduates with honours

When the Peter Allen classic Tenterfield Saddler was played at a recent farewell party, David Battersby became a bit emotional.

But after all, the Tenterfield-born Federation University vice-chancellor is a country boy through and through. 

In fact, Professor Battersby has forged a career out of pushing regional issues – particularly education – to the government policy forefront.

“At the end of the day, folks in our region should have the same rights and possibilities as those who live in metropolitan Australia,” Professor Battersby said.

“We have to be really vigilant about that and standing up for the rights of our region or public policy won’t take into account regional students.”

Professor Battersby spent his last day on the job on Friday before he starts the “unwinding” process after a long and decorated academic career, which began at Rockhampton’s Capricornia Institute of Advanced Education in the mid-1970s before continuing on at the Canberra College of Advanced Education.

After he finished his degree, he realised he’d gone as far as he could in the Australian tertiary education system, which at the time did not offer further qualifications.

“I was keen to do postgraduate studies and there was a New Zealand institution that accepted me.”

Professor Battersby and wife, fellow academic Dr Kennece Coombe, spent the next 11 years in our trans-Tasman neighbour, with Professor Battersby receiving a first class honours degree and PhD from the University of Waikato before working at Massey University, teaching and researching in sociology fields.

“It was largely the formative years of my education. But my contribution to New Zealand was two New Zealand children!”

Professor Battersby returned to Australia and spent nearly 20 years at New South Wale’s Charles Sturt University, including as faculty dean, campus head, pro vice-chancellor and deputy vice-chancellor.

In August, 2006, he took up the role as vice-chancellor of the then University of Ballarat.

“This is a great community – it’s been one of the highlights of the job for me. For many students, this is the biggest city they have lived in in their lives and they have people here who care for them. It’s about old-fashioned values in a modern setting.”

Professor Battersby said one of the proudest moments in his tenure was seeing his students graduate.

“It’s so moving to see these folk born in a regional community come to us when the word university has never been part of the family lexicon.

“To see them come to university, when it’s not easy financially, and, three or four years later, to see them cross the stage in front of their family and friends is very humbling. 

“It’s why, in my mind, we exist as a university.”

Professor Battersby said the Federation University staff were also to be praised.

“What makes an institution tick is not the buildings, it’s the spirit that transpires in those buildings.”

He pointed to Federation University having the highest number of graduates employed in Victoria as proof of the pudding.

“That tells me the staff are doing a great job and you can’t ask for anything else as a university.”

Further afield, Professor Battersby was also the founding chair of the advocacy group Regional Universities Network (RUN), which includes Rockhampton’s CQ University, Southern Cross University in Lismore, the University of New England in Armidale, the University of Southern Queensland in Toowoomba and the University of the Sunshine Coast.

“It started with very humble beginnings but is now part and parcel of the (tertiary education) enterprise. We now get consulted about changes in public policy.”

He is also a board member of Education Australia and IDP Education, which advocates for international students to access tertiary studies.

“Again, it’s another great passion of mine. We should all take international students as our obligation as part of the global community.

“We have students from 48 to 50 countries around the world. The uni experience is now an international experience.”

Federation University will open a satellite campus in Brisbane in late 2017, which he said was already attracting great interest from South American and Korean students.

During his decade-long tenure, Professor Battersby oversaw many changes to Federation University – including its controversial name change on January 1, 2014.

“We gave ourselves five years to bed it all in but we’re ending our third year now and we’ve achieved most of our key milestones.

“We’ve got the largest growth in VCAT preferences so there is an acceptance of the brand and the niche experience you get at Federation University.

“I have to pay tribute to the university council. It was a big strategic decision taken by the council and the chancellor … but these days universities can’t stand still.”

Professor Battersby said they had been the only university to recently make “momentous decisions” including the name change, new legislation to reflect the new title and a changing footprint.

He said a recent study showing Federation University as one of the world’s 50 universities to watch was positive but he said the focus would always remain on their students.

“Others have given us kudos and praise, and we celebrate that, but we haven’t gone looking for it.”

Federation University is one of only two tertiary institutions to have the word Australia in their title, after Notre Dame Australia.

Former premier Denis Napthine led an unusual push to have it included in the title, as federal governments –not state – usually legislate to include Australia in an institution’s name.

“There’s 15,000 universities in the world. If we had the name of the country in it, it was going to be easier for people overseas.”

Professor Battersby sat through readings of the name change legislation in both the state upper and lower house.

“MPs from both sides stood up to speak to the bill – we were essentially becoming the regional university for Victoria.”

Professor Battersby has also been heavily involved in community work during his Ballarat tenure, including as the foundation chairman of MADE.

“John Howard popularised the term ‘mutual obligation’ and we have the privilege, as a regional university, to give back to the community.”

He also pointed to the university’s strong involvement in White Ribbon Day, with the institution about to be ratified as a White Ribbon Day organisation.

“It’s important to be able to stand up. These issues are very important to our community. We can never take for granted the community in which we exist.”