While new Vice-Chancellor Professor Amit Chakma may be feeling a little unsure about adjusting to driving on the left-hand side of the road, he’s confident he can meet the challenge of turning around the University’s financial situation within the next two years.
“When I accepted the role I saw my job as that of a builder – I was going to build as much as I could over a five-year period,” Professor Chakma said. “I was going to spend a year or so learning about the University, coming up with exciting plans, looking at exciting research opportunities and then launch into a series of philanthropic campaigns.
“Unfortunately because of the situation that we’re facing, the timelines needed to be shifted so I’ve given myself a year-and-a-half to fix the deficit – or at least to bring it under control.”
Professor Chakma is now looking ahead to 2022 to start rebuilding, although he points out that process has already begun.
“We are trying to grow our domestic enrolments as I speak because we can do that now while COVID is not a problem. Internationally, though, we can’t do much about recruiting more students until the borders open – at this stage we have no certainty – but I’m hoping by 2022 borders will open and we launch into that,” he said.
Having already put in place plans for structural change, he’s focused on improving the synergies between research and teaching.
As well as reshaping the University’s organisational structure to give schools more autonomy, Professor Chakma is keen to bring together heads of schools, research institute directors and prominent scholars as well as administrative leaders to have freewheeling conversations not constrained by processes.
“Just get the ideas out and if we identify something we want to do, then we charge those who have the responsibility to get it done,” he said.
After migrating from Canada, Professor Chakma and his wife Meena are determined to make the most of living in Perth. They made the decision early on that they wanted to live beachside and have now settled in Scarborough with panoramic ocean views.
While used to entertaining and attending regular functions in Canada, arriving in Perth in the middle of a pandemic has curtailed the couple’s social activities.
“We’re discovering the benefits of being empty nesters – we don’t have children living with us and we don’t have to worry about schools. Living in Scarborough means we have everything we need within five to seven minutes’ walking distance,” he said.
“The lifestyle here – maybe this is COVID-related – is different but the demand of the job here is quite a bit different to what it was in my previous role. We didn’t really have weekends to ourselves and there was quite a bit of travel but there’s not many of those calls here – not yet anyway. I’m using my time on the weekends to learn, slowly, how to drive on the other side of the road.”
“We cannot simply be a university doing all the things that good universities do, we have to be more than that; and that is the challenge.”UWA Vice-Chancellor Professor Amit Chakma
Despite being in the job for less than six months, Professor Chakma has spent his early days getting to know the people and places that make up UWA. He highlights the University’s many strengths – foremost among them its people.
“We have great people. Every time I visit an academic unit, research lab, classroom or teaching lab, I come back excited. I knew, based on paper and my own research, that to be the case but now I have seen it in person and am convinced. The fundamentals are very strong – our people and our place,” he said.
Professor Chakma is also mindful of UWA’s history, its mission and its role in the development of the state.
“This University occupies an important place in WA so to me that’s an opportunity. It has a long history and is a manifest of the aspiration of the people of WA for generations. We inherit that legacy, to build on,” he said.
“I like that mission and the challenges it throws at us; the challenge being that we cannot simply be a university doing all the things that good universities do, we have to be more than that; and that is the challenge.”
Having left his native Bangladesh after receiving a scholarship to study engineering in Algeria before migrating to Canada, Professor Chakma is a strong advocate for international education.
He is also a champion of equity of access to education, with his parents making many sacrifices to ensure their children were able to attend school and aspire to tertiary education.
“The only way for us to grow is by expanding our student catchment area. If we work within WA by being more inclusive – and that’s our mandate, to create opportunities and serve the needs of people – then we can also bring in students from across the broader region,” he said.
Professor Chakma sees UWA’s position on the Indian Ocean Rim as a distinct but untapped advantage.
“In terms of cultural and economic growth there is a lot happening in this region. We’re in the middle of a part of the world where a lot of things are happening. We can create many opportunities for ourselves and we can make many contributions through education and research. We can make our impact felt and that is our advantage,” he said.
“Ultimately if we’re successful (and it will not be within my five-year term) but 10, 20 years from now, UWA should be the leading university in the region with tentacles all over and our impact should be felt everywhere.”