AUSTRALIAN Catholic University has appointed a distinguished sociologist Professor Zlatko Skrbis as the University’s next vice chancellor and president.
Professor Skrbis holds a doctorate in Sociology and has a prominent international research profile in the fields of migration, social theory and youth studies.
He is the creator and chief investigator of the high-profile Our Lives longitudinal study that has followed thousands of Queenslanders from the age of 12 into adulthood.
The study, running since 2006 is close to his heart, and is about to release findings that shed light on the impact of COVID-19 on the lives of about 1,000 respondents.
“We got a really nice snapshot of issues – the impact on their careers, on family relationships and health and wellbeing,” Professor Skrbis said.
He said soon to be published findings would provide insights into mental health and the way young people had been affected as a result of the pandemic.
“It’s a fairly predictable story. They’ve been hard done by. Although their relationships with parents, friends and family have been strengthened, there has been quite a rise in reported issues associated with mental health,” he said.
“These are not innocent times, I think.”
Professor Skrbis said he was honoured to be appointed as ACU’s fourth vice-chancellor and president, replacing Professor Greg Craven who is retiring after 13 years at the helm.
“Whilst still very young, our University has already made a significant mark on the Catholic and higher education landscape in Australia and internationally,” he said after an international recruitment search resulted in his appointment.
“I am particularly grateful to Professor Craven for his wisdom, guidance, and support.
“I am committed to providing ACU with leadership that is grounded in the Catholic intellectual tradition and predicated on a strong commitment to excellence, enterprise, and empathy.
“My ambition is that we evolve as a dynamic and innovative university, while being globally recognised as an institution that adheres to its strong Catholic principles and makes a tangible improvement to the lives of others through excellence in education, research, and community engagement.”
Professor Skrbis joined ACU about 18 months ago after holding senior executive roles at the University of Queensland and Monash University.
It was at UQ, that he launched Our Lives , an idea that came to him after sitting with his children and watching the 7 Up documentary series that follows a group of Brits from childhood into adulthood, checking in with them every seven years.
Viewers were immersed in 50 years of life played out over several hours.
They watched on as the children grew, their dreams lived and died, and their fortunes turned.
He said his two children, now adults were asking such fascinating questions about the show, and it sparked an idea that he couldn’t let go of.
And so, in 2006 he and his collaborators launched Our Lives, a project that follows some 2,000 Queenslanders from the age of 12 into adulthood.
With the group now in their mid-20s, biennial surveys and one-on-one interviews continue to provide key insights.
“It’s really exciting that this research keeps delivering and has currency,” he said.
Speaking of future challenges, Professor Skrbis said all Australian universities had been affected by COVID-19 and a decline in international student numbers.
However he said ACU had been “slightly less impacted” because unlike some institutions it had a balanced mix of international and domestic students.
“It is worth remembering we had to lift our learning materials into the digital realm almost overnight,” Professor Skrbis said.
“We have done that, quite successfully and learnt a great deal from that process.
“Having said that, I think the impact of COVID-19 is going to be medium to long term.
“I do feel that the higher education sector is going to emerge quite different from this crisis.
“ACU has navigated through this crisis as well as we possibly could have.”
Professor Skrbis described the Federal Government’s proposed overhaul of tertiary education as a radical rebalancing of priorities.
This includes fee changes that will sharply hike the cost of many arts courses.
“It certainly isn’t sending the most positive signal about the arts areas as a priority,” he said.
“Clearly we would like to see as much support for the arts as possible, but we also understand that there is a broader set of considerations at work.
“But we are absolutely delighted that we have an outstanding, strong and growing institute for humanities and social sciences here at ACU.”
Professor Skrbis said maintaining ACU’s competitive advantage would depend on delivering a diverse range of market-facing courses that lead to future-ready career outcomes.
“This will be achieved by offering courses that provide our students with the knowledge and skills they need to meet the demands of current and emerging markets,” he said.
Professor Skrbis will take up his role next January.