Vice-Chancellor Professor Attila Brungs shares his vision of UTS and how he’ll translate it into reality.
“I must be one of the most fortunate Vice-Chancellors in Australia,” admits Professor Attila Brungs who took over the top executive position at UTS from Professor Ross Milbourne in July. “At a time when higher education is changing so much in Australia, we’ve just built a campus for the future.”
“I’m not a Vice-Chancellor stuck with lecture halls built 50 years ago. We’ve been able to design our campus (based) on the latest trends in teaching and learning to give our students experiences they’d never get anywhere else.”
Professor Brungs doesn’t take any credit for the $1.2 billion transformation, praising Milbourne, Chancellor Professor Vicki Sara and the UTS Council for “their incredible vision” in doubling the size of the campus. But as the construction work draws to an end, it presents Brungs with a brand new challenge.
“The buildings are great, but what the buildings enable us to do is even greater,” says the 42 year old Rhodes Scholar and former research scientist.
“Some people believe online course work is the death of universities. I don’t believe that at all. But we have to use it in a sophisticated manner. Rather than have a lecture, how do we have an interaction in the lecture room?
“In the master plan, we have not built one traditional lecture theatre. We now have much more collaborative spaces, with rotating chairs and big desks. Students listen to the lecturer, get some group work, turn around and work with their peers. There’s multi-media technology all through these buildings so how do we get the best use out of it? My role here at UTS is to make sure that happens.
“At UTS, we have always been in the forefront of teaching and learning and educational experiences. Let’s make sure we are world-leading in the future.”
When the Chancellor announced his appointment in December, Professor Sara said “Attila’s imagination, passion and commitment set him apart” against “intense national and international competition” and praised his “bold vision” for the future of UTS.
So what is his vision? Making sure UTS becomes one of the finest universities of technology in the world, he says. “In one recent ranking, we’re in the top 250 in the world. That’s fantastic. But I want to be up there with MIT and Imperial College, London. How do we get into that realm? That’s going to take 10 or 15 years.
“We’ve come a long way in our 25 year history and, in the last ten years under Ross, we’ve taken a huge step jump. Now we need another one or two step jumps to get into that top league.”
Rather than setting targets to achieve that result, Professor Brungs says “it’s more about the characteristics I want us to have”. The world’s top universities “have this unremitting focus on excellence”, he says. “The good thing is that we already have excellence across UTS. What I’d like to do is make it ubiquitous and almost unconscious.”
In part, that means “focusing on what we are very good at”, and ensuring that those subjects are taught with innovation and creativity. “I don’t want us to copy what other universities do. As we get bigger, I don’t want us to become a bland, broad university.”
He cites education, science, engineering, design, architecture and building as among UTS strengths, but points out they are lots of courses within those disciplines which the university doesn’t offer.
“Those we do pick, we do very, very well. We have to be very distinctive in what we do so that when people graduate from UTS, everyone knows they’ve chosen the best in their field.”
For most of his career, Professor Brungs has been involved in research, either as an academic or in managerial positions. He was a senior manager at McKinsey and Co before joining CSIRO in 2002 as general manager, science investment, strategy and performance. In 2009, he came to UTS as Deputy Vice-Chancellor and Vice-President (Research) which gave him general oversight of the University’s research activities, postgraduate education, industry liaison, intellectual property and commercialisation.
It’s a far cry from the research scientist he intended to be when he left Oxford University with a PhD in inorganic chemistry. Does he ever miss being on the front line of research? “Absolutely. There’s an excitement about constructing an experiment and getting an answer you didn’t expect. But I made a conscious choice about how I could best use my talents. I can guarantee that there are hundreds of thousands of researchers better than I am. So I’m very happy with my choice.”
He’s married to scientist-turned-artist Kate Gradwell. They live in Sydney’s Northern Beaches with their two young children, Eleanor and William – both of whom have inherited his love of archery and the sabre which he learnt from his Hungarian grandfather.
At 190 cms tall and with a penchant for three piece suits, Professor Brungs cuts a distinctive figure as he strolls around campus, which he likes to do often.
“A university is a vibrant place,” he explains. “Sometimes, when life gets really busy, you forget why you’re here. Then you wander around the campus and you know why. You feel the student buzz.”
Story by Steve Meacham
Photography by Kevin Cheung