2023 Bradley Oration

This is a full transcript of the second Bradley Oration, delivered at the University of Sydney on 12 December 2023.

I thank Siupeli Haukoloa-Paea for the Welcome to Country and I too acknowledge that we meet on the lands of the Gadigal people of the Eora Nation.

It is a great privilege to be invited to give the second Bradley Oration at this fine university where Denise got her first degree. I thank Bruce King, the husband of the late Denise Bradley AC and The University of Sydney for this invitation.

Last year, Minister Jason Clare gave the first oration and his will be a hard act to follow. He stated:

“Tonight, we gather to honour someone who was a truly great Australian. And hopefully forge an annual tradition where speakers talk not just of Denise and her legacy, but of what comes next.”

I think that is exactly what Denise would want and reluctantly, I therefore will restrict my desire to again spell out her virtues in extenso – except to say that taking over from Denise as UniSA’s Vice-Chancellor in 2007 was a daunting task – because she was exceptional not only in what she did for that university but also in what she did as an inspirational and defining leader in Australian Higher Education.

It is my firm belief that hundreds of thousands of recent and future university graduates will lead better lives because of the opportunities they were given to be the best they can be.

Opportunities due, in no small part, to the reform work advocated for and facilitated by Denise through an amazingly impactful career forged through a combination of staggering intellect, strong unwavering values and resilience that made her overcome barriers most would have been held back by.

I knew Denise well. She was ferociously honest, and it would be fair to assume, I think, that not everyone appreciated all the tough choices she had to make.

However, no one would ever be able to claim her overarching ambition was anything but laudable.

That ambition was for us to create a stronger society and I think a couple of passages from the Executive Summary of the now legendary 2008 (Bradley) Review of Australian Higher Education illustrate that ambition.

Australia faces a critical moment in the history of higher education. There is an international consensus that the reach, quality, and performance of a nation’s higher education system will be key determinants of its economic and social progress.

If we are to maintain our high standard of living, underpinned by a robust democracy and a civil and just society, we need an outstanding, internationally competitive higher education system.

Higher education will clearly be a major contributor to the development of a skilled workforce but, as never before, we must address the rights of all citizens to share in its benefits.

Higher education will continue to be a cornerstone of our legal, economic, social, and cultural institutions and it lies at the heart of Australia’s research and innovation system.

Today I wish to start by reflecting on these words some 15 years after their publication as I believe them to not have diminished in significance but arguably taken on even greater urgency in a world that seems more fractured, and in some places less civil, just, and democratic.

To set the scene, and somewhat urged by global developments over the past decade or so, I will refer to the Democracy Index published annually by The Economist, acknowledging that the methods employed will be subject to criticism by some.

The Index is based on assessment of five categories, namely:

• Electoral Process and Pluralism

• Functioning of Government

• Political Participation

• Political Culture

• Civil Liberties

A maximum score of ten can be attained and a country is judged to be a full democracy if the aggregate score over these categories is greater than eight.

Twenty four of the 167 countries surveyed in 2022 were judged to be full democracies and about 8% of the global population live in those democracies – 8%!

Only eight countries had an impressive score of greater than nine- namely:

Norway, New Zealand, Iceland, Sweden, Finland, Denmark, Switzerland and Ireland – in that order.

Australia scored well at 8.71 but has experienced a slide out of the nine-plus group since the 2020 survey, despite scoring 9.22 in 2012.

Amongst other countries to slide in their Democracy Index is Canada with a score of 8.88 and the United States now with a score of 7.85 and hence falling into a category The Economist labels as ‘Flawed Democracy’

The scores amongst the 167 countries indexed ranged from 0.32 for Afghanistan at number 167, to Norway at 9.81 at number 1.

We are privileged to live in a strong democracy and I am very grateful to be part of it. My concern is that we cannot take the wellbeing of our democracies for granted and I see some worrying signs in traditionally well-functioning democracies that should not be ignored and should be countered where possible.

At this point I wish to introduce the concept of the Gini coefficient.

Simply put, the Gini coefficient is a measure of the distribution of income across a population.

A higher Gini coefficient indicates greater inequality, with high-income individuals receiving much larger percentages of the population’s total income.

Whilst I am not a social scientist by any stretch of imagination, some empirical studies reported in the peer reviewed literature conclude that economic inequality, measured by the Gini coefficient, drives down an individual’s support for democracy.

Interestingly, the countries occupying the nine top spots in The Economist Democracy Index on average have low Gini coefficients and certainly much lower than those of countries such as the United States, South Africa and Brazil.

In 2016, the top 1% of earners in the United States accounted for 21% of national income and 38% of the nation’s wealth. Whilst income and wealth are more equally distributed in Australia, there is a trend towards greater wealth inequality emerging here and elsewhere.

Since the Global Financial Crisis, the academic literature has referred to a so-called democratic recession and, as pointed out by K.P. Huang, “economists and political scientists have explored the causes of economic inequality and its link with the rise of populism in the West” [Quote from KP Huang Soc Indic Res. 2023; 166(1): 27-51].

It has been further argued that economic inequality negatively affects people’s support for democracy across regions, particularly amongst those groups who feel pressure – such as the young and the elderly.

Put more simply, if you feel left behind and observe wealth distribution is increasingly skewed, then you may be more likely to conclude that society in its current shape is not working for you.

This could result in lack of social cohesion and indeed a lesser buy-in to existing democratic processes.

To paraphrase the extract I quoted from The Bradley Review’s Executive Summary earlier: if you want to have a strong society – make sure that everyone who is qualified to do so gets an opportunity to get a post-Year 12 education.

To take it back a step further: do all that you can to ensure that everyone gets the chance to qualify for that opportunity in the first place.

Whilst some may see this as a cost, it should be seen as a prudent investment in maintaining and further improving the fine society we all share and contribute to.

From my perspective as a lay reader, the literature seems reasonably clear on these matters.

There is a correlation between educational status and life-time earnings. So, it follows that giving more people an opportunity to receive a post-school education will not only address skills shortages but likely also provide a more even distribution of wealth and a greater degree of trust in society.

I was first in family to get a Year 12 education. My father left school at Year Nine and ran a small fish-shop. My mother was a nurse and we lived in a small one-bedroom rented flat between 1960 and 1970.

I had a speech impediment that held me back from school for a year. When I finally got to school, I benefitted greatly from a school-supplied speech pathologist who largely fixed my problems after an extended period of one-on-one sessions. I started to do well at school after that.

I had friends whose parents were well educated and lived in good houses – and yet – I have never felt educationally disadvantaged relative to them.

I am grateful and will always be grateful for, and supportive of, the societal support that enabled me to thrive and succeed.

Now, of course – it was not only society that supported me. My father always said to me: “Peter, get an education – it can never be taken away from you.” And my mother made it clear that achieving well was not good enough.

Not all children are that lucky and it seems one of the most unfair circumstances of life that children are born into wildly differing circumstances.

As the current Head of Prime Minister and Cabinet Glyn Davis pointed out in his book, On Life’s Lottery:

“Birth is always a gamble but must the life that follows be tied to the same game of chance?

It is dispiriting. Studies by the Melbourne Institute confirm that children born into disadvantage struggle to break out of disadvantage in adulthood. A child from an impoverished background is five times more likely to suffer adult poverty and two and half times more likely to need social housing.

For the poorest in our society, social mobility is highly constrained. Each time the lottery plays, the same results emerge.”

This undesirable situation is indeed borne out by the lived experience. In 2015, the Federal Reserve of St Louis released a report that indicated the wealth disparity between families of advanced education and those without it.

It found that: among families with a graduate degree, the chances of having at least $1 million are better than one in three. Among families without a high school diploma, the chances are about one in 110.

Such disparity is not solely the consequence of education level, but increasingly also reflective of larger inherited wealth if the generations before you were educated.

So, whilst attaining a good education is a foundation for social mobility, it can paradoxically also reinforce wealth inequality as children from educated families are much more likely to pursue education because of family tradition and gain greater opportunities to engage in pre-school activities at home, or in more formal early childhood educational settings.

In 2014 the International Monetary Foundation reported a big study on wealth distribution and concluded that:

• Increased societal prosperity, on average, leads to lower inequality.

• Growth in a country’s GDP boosts the relative income share of the poor and the middle class at the expense of the richest 20 percent. In other words, not only do the poor and the middle-class benefit from growth, but they also actually benefit proportionately more than the rich – and –

• Education policies-particularly those that concentrate on equity and skills-can be among the most potent levers countries have to reduce income disparities over the longer term.

Separate research indicates high gross national income per capita lowers the level of demand for economic equality at the individual level – which I take to mean that societies with high GDP per capita, and with policies that ensure sufficient sharing of wealth, will reduce the sense amongst the less well-off that they will be left behind.

In this context it is important to remind ourselves that whilst our wealth and GDP per capita can be augmented by having successful extractive industries, such resources are finite.

What is of infinite value is benefitting from an educated workforce, underpinned by outstanding research, informed by societal needs, and put to use for societal benefit.

As Denise pointed out – Universities are fundamental to this outcome.

So, to recap:

Taking as a starting point the assertion in The Bradley Review Executive Summary that:

If we are to maintain our high standard of living, underpinned by a robust democracy and a civil and just society, we need an outstanding, internationally competitive higher education system.

• Only 24 countries (accounting for 8% of the global population) are deemed to live in functional democracies.

• Current global trends show worrying signs about the state of democracies, and we cannot take the strength of democracies for granted.

• The support for democracy will wane when vulnerable groups feel left behind (e.g. the young and the older without sufficient income in retirement).

• Support for democracy seems to be correlated with a relatively low Gini coefficient – indicating relatively low-income disparity.

• Education policies-particularly those that concentrate on equity and skills-can be among the most potent levers countries have to reduce income disparities over the longer term.

• When gross national product per capita is growing (often a consequence of a strong R&D effort), a greater level of income disparity may not necessarily lead to a lack of support for democracy if it is accompanied by transfer of benefits to the less well-off.

There can be no doubt that access to education has played a strong role in our enviable position of having a high GDP per capita and living in a well-functioning democracy.
However, we cannot take this for granted and there are signs emerging that, for the benefit of all, we should resolve to do better.

Professor Peter Høj AC, Vice-Chancellor and President, the University of Adelaide

Yet again – jumping back to that key paragraph in The Bradley Review:

There is an international consensus that the reach, quality and performance of a nation’s higher education system will be key determinants of its economic and social progress.

If we are to maintain our high standard of living, underpinned by a robust democracy and a civil and just society, we need an outstanding, internationally competitive higher education system.

Further it said:

Higher education will continue to be a cornerstone of our legal, economic, social, and cultural institutions and it lies at the heart of Australia’s research and innovation system.

I see no contradiction between the more tenuous observations I have attempted to link and the assertive bold statement in The Bradley Review.

So, some 15 years after its release, how can we continue to pursue the implicit objectives Denise Bradley wished for Australia to achieve?

Firstly, we should acknowledge that a huge amount has been achieved already as pointed out by Minister Clare in the first Bradley Oration last year.

However, it is also clear that a key objective relating to low-SES participation in higher education has yet to be met, a point I will return to in my concluding remarks.

Combined with relatively sluggish economic growth and innovation in the broader economy, this can possibly precipitate a declining support for our otherwise fine democratic society.

I was fortunate to follow Denise as VC at UniSA and to be succeeded by David Lloyd, the current Chair of Universities Australia. David, like me is also a first in family graduate and is also a person who has benefitted enormously from access to higher education.

We agree on most things and when it comes to getting springs in our steps – nothing beats seeing young people graduate from our institutions.

It is especially uplifting when we know many of them – like us – are the first in family to be given what we consider a life-changing asset – a post-school education.

David and I shared another ambition respectively in 2018 and 2011, namely, to amalgamate The University of Adelaide and the University of South Australia.

On both occasions we had sought Denise’s view, and she was supportive. Indeed, when the 2018 attempt fell over – David got a call from Denise who said words to the effect: ‘You (expletive) bottled it!’ You were never left wondering what Denise was thinking.

We concluded that Denise remained in favour of a merger!

Unbeknown to the universities, however, the leader of South Australia’s Labor opposition, Peter Malinauskas, had himself been contemplating the value of a potential merger of universities since 2018’s “failure”.

Without any input from the institutions, he announced his party’s first pre-election policy position in late 2020, succinctly titled A South Australian University Merger.

The policy stated that should an “independent Commission determine that a university merger is in the interest of the South Australian economy and the welfare of the people of the state, then a merger will be a first term priority for a Labor Government”.

March 2022 saw a landslide election win for Malinauskas and SA Labor and, with it, a clear public mandate for the promised “merger commission”.

Both University of Adelaide and University of South Australia had already been contemplating what opportunities and imperatives would flow from Labor forming Government in South Australia.

To cut a long story short, after very extensive feasibility studies comprising tens of thousands of person hours, in June 2023 the councils of the two universities independently determined that forming a new combined University for the Future – to be known as Adelaide University – would be in the best interest of both their respective individual institutions and the people of the State of South Australia.

This was marked through the signing by both Chancellors – Catherine Branson AC KC and Pauline Carr – of a binding Heads of Agreement on July 2, 2023.

A parliamentary inquiry of more than two months duration followed, and the report of the Joint Committee on the Establishment of Adelaide University stated that:

“On the balance of the evidence received, the Committee considers that the economic and social interests of the State of South Australia would likely be advanced by the amalgamation of The University of Adelaide and the University of South Australia into the new Adelaide University”.

This was relatively quickly followed by passage of a corresponding Bill through both Houses of Parliament and the subsequent establishment of the Adelaide University Act through Royal Assent.

Why, you might ask did this support eventuate? The principal driver is to build on synergistic strengths and deliver on the following vision – a vision that clearly resonated with our respective Councils and the SA Parliament:

Australia’s new for purpose university is a leading contemporary comprehensive university of global standing. We are dedicated to ensuring the prosperity, well-being, and cohesion of society by addressing educational inequality, through our actions and through the success and impact of our students, staff and alumni. Partnered with the communities we serve; we conduct outstanding future-making research of scale and focus.

Whilst the vision above was developed ab initio it was pleasing for us to see that it broadly aligns with the key messages in the Executive Summary of The Bradley Review – which you would know by now!

It is very ambitious because it sets out to fulfill both an equity agenda and a partnered research agenda leading to economic growth and other societal benefit – two of the key drivers I have speculated underpin strong civil, cohesive, and democratic societies.

Through our experiences of running universities for a combined 28 years and both previously leading peak national research agencies, David and I acknowledge that this is a huge project and not without execution risk, but the very same experience has also led us to conclude that Equity and Excellence are not mutually exclusive but arguably mutually reinforcing – certainly at the societal level.

To illustrate this, here are a couple of stated ambitions for the new Adelaide University:

We will –

• Increase the proportion of young Australians employed in highly skilled jobs and raise the overall educational attainment level by diversifying student cohorts, strengthening recruitment channels and expanding its international footprint.

• Be a catalyst for innovation, growth, and competitiveness in South Australia’s economy, fostering industry partnerships, supporting start-ups, driving research commercialisation, and managing intellectual property effectively.

Concurrent with our merger process, the Australian federal government is pursuing a policy review of the higher education landscape – the Universities Accord process – which may lay new markers for universities and present new funding arrangements.

Some have held up this ongoing, government-sponsored higher education review as a reason for us to halt progress on our endeavour, but we have worked to ensure that we are involved in this critical process, and our proposed new university for the future is very much in step with the Australian Universities Accord Interim Report, published in July.

Whilst we have ambitions for the new institution itself, it is principally through the benefit we believe it will deliver to society. Delivering such benefit requires much more than a great ‘Accord’ for post-Year 12 education, including vocational education.

It requires a system which can negate, to the greatest extent possible, the consequences of having been born into circumstances of disadvantage in all the forms it is expressed – as Glyn Davis so eloquently described.

Put less elegantly, I would argue that any ambition to grow meaningful societal impact at university level is dependent on what happens from the cradle to at least Year 12.

This is of course not a deep and profound insight, but encouragingly the ambition to create our new for purpose University in South Australia has coincided with the Malinauskas Government in October 2022 initiating a Royal Commission into Early Childhood Education and Care.

Former Prime Minister, Julia Gillard AC, who grew up in South Australia and attended public schools there, was invested with the powers of a Royal Commissioner by the South Australian Governor, Frances Adamson AC.

It is to my mind a monumental report and I will be constrained to one quote from Commissioner Gillard:

“To build a great future for our State, we must invest in our children. The science now tells us that investing in the early years – from birth to school entry – pays the biggest dividends, with ninety percent of brain development occurring in the first five years of a child’s life. That’s why the best start lays the foundations for a better future.”

And from Premier Malinauskas:

“First and foremost, this is about ensuring fewer children are developmentally vulnerable when they start school.’

‘We are starting work immediately, investing in the infrastructure, the workforce and the governance overhaul required to make this vision a reality.”

Having delivered children well prepared for school, the next task is to secure their safe passage through the system and create supportive ‘swim lanes’ that guide them to successful completions and with great belief and ambition to become the best they can be.

With predictions that nine out of 10 new jobs going forward will require a post-Year 12 education, for a large proportion of school-leavers – perhaps up to 50% – that will mean a university education of some description.

For that to happen, many coming from families with no prior history of university attainment will need to believe university is also open to them.

Schools and families are clearly critical in that respect, but universities can assist as well.

An example of how the tertiary sector can directly support childhood education is Children’s University.

Children’s University is a remarkable program that aims to support all children, but particularly those in the most vulnerable communities, to see their future as bright, promising, and exciting.

It focuses on providing learning experiences through a passport system. When children have completed their passports, they are eligible to attend a graduation – complete with cap and gown.

The value of such a program – where children get to see and experience something that might otherwise be considered out of their reach – is very clear.

Children’s University turned 10 this year. It started in 2013 at the University of Adelaide with just 44 students and since then, more than 47,000 students have graduated from around Australia, New Zealand and Mauritius.

This year alone, the University of Adelaide:

• Worked with 165 Schools (of which 109 were from Low SES, regional or remote communities),

• Had 5342 children and young people participate in the program

• Graduated 4,800 students in 19 ceremonies across metropolitan and regional South Australia with proud family members also in attendance.

The key message to these young people: you are a success – university is also for you.

Personally, I have attended well over 200 graduations as VC since 2007, and these graduations are right up there amongst the memorable ones – especially when a past Children’s University graduate helps preside over the ceremonies – as a university graduate!


We are very fortunate to live in one of the richest democratic countries in the world and are envied by most. There can be no doubt that access to education has played a strong role in our enviable position of having a high GDP per capita and living in a well-functioning democracy.

However, we cannot take this for granted and there are signs emerging that, for the benefit of all, we should resolve to do better.

I would go as far as to say, that there is a moral imperative to address the injustice that flows from individual children being born into different circumstances and an enormous collective benefit to all citizens in doing so.

As The Bradley Review and subsequent reforms have illustrated, a thorough systematic look at components of our education system can lead to enhanced performance.

So what more could we have done to deliver on all ambitions set out in that review, particularly as it relates to low-SES participation in higher education?

In my view, and following what I have outlined above, an understanding of opportunities for improvement from cradle to, at least, the end of high school is also required.

I am encouraged that the Federal Government also recognises the importance of this.

In February this year, Treasurer Jim Chalmers requested the Productivity Commission to undertake an inquiry into the early childhood education and care (ECEC) sector in Australia and a Draft Report was released on 23 October this year.

In March this year, Minister Jason Clare announced the Expert Panel to inform a better and fairer education system, chaired by Dr Lisa O’Brien AM – former CEO of the Smith Family for a decade.

With a focus on the school system, the Panel has investigated how to “drive real and measurable improvements for students most at risk of falling behind and who need additional support.”

The Expert Panel delivered its report on 31 October 2023, and I look forward to reading its findings when it is publicly released.

The very large number of Australians engaged in charity and countless initiatives across our nation, exemplified by the SA Royal Commission into Early Childhood Education and Care, Children’s University Australasia, and creation of a University for the Future, indicate a strong foundational interest to do better.

If the combined result of these reviews and initiatives is a set of actions aligned with the outcomes of the Accord process, then we will have the opportunity to improve educational outcomes for all Australians – from birth to university and beyond.

The choice is ours. If we make it, we may be able to hand the society we have on loan from our children back in as good and hopefully better shape than we received it. That would not only be the right thing to do but also allow us to – in Denise Bardley’s words – maintain our high standard of living, underpinned by a robust democracy and a civil and just society – and who knows – even make an advance on that laudable goal. I am pretty certain Denise would not have objected to that ambition. Thank you.

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