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Andrew Forrest's record $65m donation to WA universities

Universities Australia Chief Executive Belinda Robinson
Transcript of interview with James Carleton
ABC Radio National Breakfast


JAMES CARLETON: Well, you will remember yesterday we talked about some of Australia's top philanthropic gifts over the years; well we were out by a day because today mining billionaire Andrew Forrest goes to the top of the list. $65 million he is donating towards higher education in Western Australia - the biggest single cash gift in Australia history. Belinda Robinson is Chief Executive of Universities Australia, with us now, good morning Belinda.


CARLETON: $65 million for higher education in Western Australia, what's your reaction to this?

ROBINSON: It's absolutely terrific, people criticise Australia for not having a philanthropic culture, but I think when these sorts of things happen, when some of our biggest, most prominent, wealthiest people in Australia give these sorts of amounts to things that are really going to deliver a dividend back to the country, then I think that we have to sit back and say, well maybe we are better than we think we are.

CARLETON: He says, this is Twiggy Forrest, anticipates this will be his best investment, what does he mean, what will you do with the money?

ROBINSON: Well my understanding from what's been announced so far is that this will primarily be based on the Rhodes Scholarships to Oxford University, which were set up over a century ago, to pay for scholarships for some of the best and brightest researchers internationally to come to Australia.

CARLETON: And how important are those scholarships?

ROBINSON: Well they're very important, we talk a lot about the brain-drain in Australia and one of the ways that we can address that is by encouraging the best and brightest researchers around the world to come to Australia and those in fact who are in Australia to stay here - so it's very, very important that we recognise who they are, we encourage them to stay here and we encourage them to participate in lifting Australia's research capability, and this is what this will help do.

CARLETON: And because it's $65 million that's enough money to maintain these scholarships in perpetuity? 

ROBINSON: That's exactly right.

CARLETON: Andrew Forrest says this will boost standards in his home state, West Australian university standards in WA. Is that important?

ROBINSON: I think it's true what they say about the location of Western Australia, it is very well positioned in terms of its location close to Asia.

CARLETON: But they have also been saying that WA unis are struggling, haven't they?

ROBINSON: That's right, universities all around Australia are struggling and when it comes to research of course, this is where the new industries come from, this is where the new products, the new services, this is where industrial diversification comes from. This is why research is so incredibly important and we are seeing the public dollar start to decline, it's incredibly important that we look to other sources of revenue and people take the initiative to I guess invest themselves in Australia research. 

CARLETON: Is there a danger that his could accelerate the decline in public funding? A Government may say you've just picked up $65m, that's $65m we don't' have to fund?

ROBINSON: Well I actually see it as a way of leveraging the public dollar, there's no doubt that public budget's all around the world are constrained and the list of things that compete for the public dollar only ever seems to get longer. But whether or not this results in less public funding available for research remains to be seen but I doubt that, I think it will just help to encourage governments to really understand the importance of having a very strong research capability in Australia.

CARLETON: We've seen a few large private donations to Australian universities over the past few years, there was $50 million to the Australian National University, the Tuckwell Scholarship, are we now seeing part of a trend here?

ROBINSON: Yeah, you're absolutely right to point out Graham and Louise Tuckwell's contribution - that was a massive donation that really helped to provide optimism that Australia is starting to embark on a more philanthropic culture towards its public institutions, whether this is sort of a new wave of philanthropy probably is a little bit early to say. For example, in America about $30 billion was donated in 2010 to universities, now obviously their populations are much bigger and they've got a lot more universities, never-the-less they do have a very strong philanthropic culture, bit early to say but let's keep our fingers crossed that we are now heading in that direction.

CARLETON: Well maybe now with Twiggy Forrest taking the lead, it might be an encouragement to others at the top end of town to join them.

ROBINSON: Well, that's absolutely right. 

CARLETON: But also, one needn't to be a multibillionaire to do this. I've done the calculations, given that Twiggy owns 30 per cent of Fortescue, it comes to six weeks' pay, which is a substantial donation, but there are many of us who actually would donate six weeks' pay, that's 10 per cent of our income a year, is that a desirable target, 10 per cent of one's income, whatever that income may be, to charitable endeavours?

ROBINSON: Well it's not up to me to say, but I guess there is a point to be made that people in Australia do give, we know that they give, most of the universities in Australia have some sort of target around philanthropic donations more broadly, most of them are looking like they are going to achieve those targets and that's as a consequence of the fact that many people who go unrecognised are contributing to our universities and of course contributing to charities more broadly and we should celebrate that.

CARLETON: Indeed, well thank you for contributing to the program, Belinda Robinson.

ROBINSON: Thank you.

CARLETON: She's the Chief Executive of Universities Australia.


You can also listen to the audio of this interview here.

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