John Dewar
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John Dewar

University of Melbourne

Professor John Dewar is the current University of Melbourne Provost, a position he took up in September 2009. He was previously Deputy Vice Chancellor (Global Relations) at the University of Melbourne from April to September 2009.  Professor Dewar is an internationally known family law specialist. A graduate of the University of Oxford, he taught at the Universities of Lancaster and Warwick from 1981 to 1988, and worked for the London law firm Allen & Overy from 1988-1990. He has published widely on various aspects of family law, access to justice and legal theory.


How would you define diversity in the context of Australia society?


There is a defined government diversity higher education policy in Australia directed toward undergraduate students.  This policy defines diversity in two main areas; indigenous and economically disadvantaged.  In terms of graduate education, institutions can establish their own individual definition for diversity.  At the University of Melbourne, we have set a goal of 20% diverse student representation in this area.  We are looking at diversity along many lines, including a discipline approach.  For example, we recognize that women are underrepresented in engineering.  Our goal is to continue to diversify our student body in a variety of ways.


What are the primary reasons why an American student from a diverse background should study at the University of Melbourne?


First reason is that the University of Melbourne is already a highly cosmopolitan institution.  The student body is comprised roughly of 28% international students drawn from about 100 countries from around the world.  The diversity among these students is not only in their country of origin, but also in the discipline they study.  Any student coming to university from overseas would find themselves part of a very diverse, tolerant and cosmopolitan student body.  Another reason is the city of Melbourne itself, the number of ethnic and racial groups is higher than any other in the world except Toronto.  That is a result of waves of immigration into Melbourne.  There are large Chinese, Vietnamese, Greek and many other populations in the city.  It’s often said that Melbourne has the second largest Greek population outside of Athens. 


What unique opportunities are presented to students pursuing their terminal degree abroad?


Exposure to another part of the world and expanding their networks are centrally important experiences that students gain while abroad. The skills that one develops by studying abroad will be increasingly sought after by employers, one example being the ability to operate across different cultures.? ?Some students may not know that many of the graduate requirements in the US are similar for Australian institutions, for example we require students to complete the LSAT in the same way as US institutions.  These are things that are not unique to the University of Melbourne, however one unique area that we are developing is in what we call the “Melbourne Model”. This is an initiative that focuses on increasing support for graduate education.  We are trying to do a number of things within this initiative.  One is that we are deliberately raising the bar in terms of professional education.  We feel that students who have made a conscious choice to focus their graduate study on a particular discipline deserve to learn in a more mature and professional environment. If a student studies with us as a graduate student, they will be studying with other graduate students, while at other institutions they may be studying alongside undergraduate students.  This idea of better serving the needs of graduate education is a key distinction held by the University of Melbourne, we are preparing graduates with the skills they will need to compete in the global workforce.  It is vitally important to us that we are providing students with a world-class graduate experience as well as a strong pay-off in their future career.


In your opinion, what are some of the obstacles to international institutions, like the University of Melbourne, to reaching diverse American students?


The most obvious barrier is cost, and with the current exchange rate being almost 1-for-1, it is challenging for students to meet that cost.  Another is the distance, Australia is quite far from the US and even if one flies from the West coast, the travel time is still over 13 hours, but I must say it is one of the more enjoyable flights that I have taken.  These are reasons why we push the value proposition very hard at the University of Melbourne, we don’t simply believe that our education offering is as good as other institutions, we believe it is better. It is a shame that Australia is often seen as simply a fun destination and not always recognized for its world-class institutions.  However, if one looks at the latest world rankings it is obvious that the University of Melbourne is recognized as one of the world’s leading institutions and we out perform many US institutions in areas of graduate study.  I believe it is a good thing to recognize Australia’s sun, sand and surf; yet it is more important to highlight quality Australian institutions, of which we are the best.


Understanding that the cost of an Australian education can be on par with that of the US, have you considered offering more financial aid to international students?


This is a complex topic for us and we still have much to learn from US institutions in this area.  We have had a much longer history of government funding; this has enabled us to focus on other issues in the past.  Australian undergraduate students don’t have to pay for their tuition until they hit the labor-force and their earnings reach a certain level, then at that point the begin to repay their tuition.  I think this is a great policy and that it has allowed Australian institutions to expand in various ways.

At the graduate level however, there is less government support and much more fee paying.  As we shift toward our graduate model, we are now grappling with the question of how to ensure that qualified students are not turned away because of cost.  Though we are still developing our approach, there are a number of things that we have already implemented.  One is that we are doing intensive fund-raising for scholarships.  Another is that we are being much more focused in how we use the limited government support that we receive for graduate education, while refocusing support to the high need students.  Similar to the American model, we are also looking at tuition remission and fee reductions.  We are also very impressed with the idea of providing more assistance to students interested in on/off campus employment while enrolled. 


Has there been any discussion about reducing the graduate study term to one year? 


In Australia graduate study is typically two years, this is because we operate on the five-year degree model.  The undergraduate degree being three years, followed by a two-year graduate program.  This model is currently under review nationally, we are waiting to see the outcome of this national review before we make any changes.  The University of Melbourne is recognized as one of the more rigorous institutions in Australia and employers expect that our students have completed a strong and comprehensive program of study.


Looking at your broad recruitment strategy for international students, how do you approach markets in Africa and South America?  How do you prioritize these efforts?


Diversity of recruitment is really important to us primarily for two reasons.  The first primary reason is that it effects the composition of the student body.  It is not in our interest to have high concentrations represented from any single country because students are less likely to engage with the cosmopolitan community at the University of Melbourne.  As a result, their language skills may not develop as much as they could.  The second primary reason involves risk management, it is the old adage: don't put all your eggs in one basket. We can’t have all of our students coming from just three source countries, because if one scales back, then we are in trouble.  It is a nice example of how financial self-interest and good social practice can combine. 

Currently our strongest markets are China, Singapore and Indonesia.  But our interests extend beyond national borders into areas of focus for students.  This means that we want to see more Chinese students coming to study engineering alongside more Guatemalan students coming to study fine arts.  It is not easy, we sit down and go country-by-country and ask tough questions.  We have various models to addressing these questions such as setting up a country office or appointing a country representative for student recruitment.  We have closed offices down in the past to re-focus our approach and opened new offices in diverse markets because we are constantly looking at ways to improve our recruitment.


What were the most important lessons for Australian institutions in terms of “diversity preparedness” following the incidents with Indian students?


It reminded everyone just how important diversity is to the work that we do.  At the same time it highlighted the fact that different institutions had different profiles when it came to India.  Some Australian universities were heavily reliant on Indian students for enrollment, while for others it was not as significant a source country.  The latter was the case for the University of Melbourne, as I said, our primary source countries are elsewhere and therefore we were less affected.  We currently have around three-hundred Indian students, but we’ve found that students choose the University of Melbourne for different reasons that encourage them to remain with us.  Our Indian students are primarily found at the Master’s and PhD level, while the impact was felt more at the undergraduate level.


How has your diverse international experience prepared you for your current role as Provost of the University of Melbourne?


I was born in Jamaica.  For the first few years of my life I was looked after by a wonderful woman named Mavis, for whom I had a deep and lasting affection.  I also lived in America for a year when I was a boy.  I lived in most parts of the UK before finally emigrating to Australia fifteen years ago.  These experiences and my travels have had a profound impact on me.  They taught me the importance of getting out of my comfort zone and taking risks.  These lessons helped me to become the leader that I am today.  Particularly, I learned that I am never in complete control.  Especially in the university setting, a leader is constantly having to make decisions on insufficient or incomplete information.  A leader is also very often working with diverse colleagues.  I believe that had I grown up in an Australian suburb and never traveled or lived abroad, I would not be as much of an effective leader.