Vidal delivers engaging address to open the 2019 Universities Australia Higher Ed Conference

The French Minister of Higher Education spoke on innovation, the future of AI, free access to research, international collaboration, EU politics and more.
James Davis
James Davis
Team PostgradAustralia
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After a rush of well-dressed university VCs, media and education professionals, the assembled Higher Education Conference representatives fell silent. Introductions and acknowledgements to the traditional owners of the land were made, followed by William Tompkins’ moving recollections of his time in Aboriginal communities around the country, stating it was a privilege to learn the native languages. He then accompanied dancers, using his voice and clapsticks, in their performance of folk songs emblematic of the land, such as the Eagle Song.

Professor Brian Schmidt, Vice-Chancellor of ANU, then took the stage for a warm welcome to Frédérique Vidal. Formerly a biochemist for a veterinary pharmaceuticals company, Vidal later became an associate professor at the University of Nice in 1995. She went on to head the biology department, as well as become dean of the college of sciences. Vidal now serves as Minister of Higher Education in the Second Philippe Government.

She opened her address with a nod to all scientific disciplines, stating “science has one of the greatest roles to play in finding solutions” and that knowledge is the product of creatives.

The problems to which she was referring spanned disciplines, from AI and collaboration with space agencies to universities, governments and their relationships with each other, particularly France’s relationships with both China and Australia. Vidal made it clear that science is a common good that ought to be made accessible by all. Given it is the duty of scientists to illuminate fellow citizens, she said, it makes little sense to have paywalls in place preventing citizenry from accessing knowledge. It’s her belief that this sort of access is vital to the discovery of solutions for the important problems of our time.

She made it clear, however, that innovation does not merely entail the development of inventions to fit a market. To her, “innovation is the very core of our economics.” It is “science in action.” She expressed her pride at France’s position as most attractive non-English country for international students, extending a warm welcome to Australian students. To her, the benefit to Australian students is substantial, as it gives them the chance to explore Europe.

Given the influence of China in our region, Vidal stated the journey France and Australia are taking together is of high importance, citing the Naval Group submarine project as a point of mutual interest. She then asserted that exchange agreements between French and Australian university laboratories would further our relationship.

The Q and A section gave Vidal the opportunity to elaborate on several points, but also address other points of interest. For instance, one audience member asked what her thoughts on Brexit were regarding France, to which she replied, “I think Brexit is a pity for the UK.” Despite the political rift, she hopes “we can conserve strong collaboration with the UK.”

Another audience member asked about the Chinese intervention in African higher education, to which she answered, “we need to help the African continent keep human resources.” She regrets the fact many African students who travel overseas to study don’t return to develop their home countries. To combat this, she professed the benefits of opening universities based in Africa, as well as incentive schemes like scholarships for returning. She cited existing Chinese support for African higher education as an avenue for collaboration, innovation and reciprocity between nations.

An illuminating question was asked regarding a change in French university admittance standards. For context, prospective French university students from all walks of life are eligible for university without any selection process. However, according to her estimates, only about one third of first-year university students pass their exams under this system. The proposed change mandates a year of preparation prior to enrolment for students suspected of struggling. She expects this will go a long way to remedying this issue.

The next question was about what the most significant contributions Australia can make to French research and further mutual scientific progress. To this, Vidal recommended “giant projects” defined by both governments, preferably long term. She stressed these must follow from pre-defined parameters concerning what the goal of such projects ought to be. Another suggestion she proposed was an exchange of PhD students.

The questions to follow yielded more intriguing insights. For convincing politicians of the benefits science can provide, she recommended implementing incentive schemes for entrepreneurship and other results-oriented activities among academics. She also recommended master and PhD level internships that let academics build R&D or lab skills at a company. Supporting the creation of startups is one of the key goals of this exercise. To her, knowledge is neither good nor evil; we just have to decide what we do with it. To that end, she stated that although all disciplines have value in the pursuit of knowledge, people in humanities and social sciences should be pressed to find uses for their knowledge.

One person asked a pointed question regarding paywalls and academic papers that many had on their mind: Without paywalls, who’s paying?

To this, Vidal had no definitive answer, stating it’s “a complex question” to which solutions must be looked for. She suggested that given the global benefit of knowledge, it isn’t far fetched to assume the public should pay for it. She did not elaborate any further on the mechanics of what she had in mind, however. She said it was a pity that finances dictate the development of knowledge.

There was then a question about what France is doing to improve research and pedagogy, particularly in regard to microcredentials. Vidal then talked about her decision to implement incentives favouring professors who spend time with their students teaching them how to learn on their own. The objective here is to equip students for lifelong learning, and define which skills are shaped by their knowledge. She then lamented the fact that if you were to ask most PhDs about what they can do with their knowledge, they’ll speak in regard to their research rather than running a business or team. She finished by stating it was important to work on and define what skills are acquired throughout a PhD and how they can be applied.

In answer to a final question, Vidal spoke briefly on AI, asserting the ethical impact is of greatest importance. Similar to her other answers, it was equally important to decide what we want to do with it. In terms of practical application, she cited the interpretation and collection of Big Data in regard to myriad systems as an excellent application of AI. She also suggested we work with space companies to improve our mobility, as well as using it to deal with energy. She finished her thought by stating all disciplines should contribute to the development and implementation of AI. Thus concluded the keynote address.

It was certainly a thought-provoking discussion, with plenty of ideas to consider in the context of Australia. What bearing would requirement-free university admittance have? Is there an upper limit on “giant projects” with justifiable purposes we can implement to further our collective knowledge with France? Is collaboration with China possible in furthering education on the African continent? What would a paywall-free academic paper repository look like? These are all considerations listeners were left with as they exited the dense auditorium. Only time will tell the answers. As for the present, it was a booming start to the 2019 Higher Education Conference.