Professor Margaret Harding, ANU’s new Deputy Vice-Chancellor (Research), has outlined a desire to help develop the university’s narrative and reputation both in Australia and abroad. In an interview with Woroni, she said that the ANU “needs to tell its story better” and that it must “articulate why Australians should invest in the national university”.

Speaking just after the release of the 2012 QS World University Rankings which saw the ANU ranked in the top ten in seven disciplines, Professor Harding said that while the plethora of rankings had meant that “their currency has been a little bit devalued”, the ANU’s performance was a “great achievement” and helped build the university’s reputation, especially amongst prospective international students.

Professor Harding, a professor of chemistry, took up her position at the ANU in June, having previously been the Pro Vice-Chancellor (Research) at the University of New South Wales.

She told Woroni that she had been attracted to the ANU by the quality of its research, its staff, and also by the fact that the ANU had Australia’s highest proportion of students studying a higher degree by research.

Professor Harding said that the ANU should look at increasing the number of research students, which, she said are still below those of elite world universities like Harvard. Last year, Professor Ian Young’s ANU by 2020 plan aimed for an increase in the ratio of postgraduate to undergraduate students from 36% to 40%, although there was no specific goal for the number of research students.

Professor Harding also commented that a significant proportion of ANU’s research students go on to careers in academia, which reflected the quality of research and research supervision.

The ANU’s research program has been bolstered in recent years by significant cash injections from the government, especially under former Prime Minister Kevin Rudd, who pledged money for the establishment of an Institute of Public Policy and for the Centre for China in the World.

However, when asked whether the special financial relationship with the Commonwealth meant that the university should align its research with the government’s policy priorities, Professor Harding said that while the university would always feel a responsibility to contribute strongly to the national debate, it was up to the ANU to determine national priorities in research. She said that the ANU’s strong focus on the Asia-Pacific region and Indigenous affairs were examples of its commitment to research in areas of national importance.

Professor Harding also decried the “unhealthy discussion of ‘impact’” in some areas, citing, some disciplines in the humanities, saying that the impact of research in some areas was impossible to quantify, and that research was above all about “intellectual endeavour”.

Professor Harding also emphasised the need to cater for a changing demographic makeup in the research student community, noting that 40% to 50% of research students no longer commence their degree straight after undergraduate study, with many juggling work and family commitments in addition to their research.

She also said that it was important to increase support structures for international research students. She said that she had had discussions with the Postgraduate and Research Students’ Association (PARSA) about developing a ‘buddy’ system to connect current and prospective international research students to help with the often difficult transition for students who move to Australia to undertake a research degree.