Departing University of Canberra Vice-Chancellor and President, Professor Deep Saini, speaks from the heart as he assesses the impact of education and life in Canberra.
Deep, whose father was given an opportunity to rise from a humble upbringing through education in India, has been a champion for the under-privileged during his three-and-a-half years leading UC.
As he prepares to leave for a new role as President of Dalhousie University in Canada to be closer to his family, Deep opens up about his time at UC, which has included providing opportunities for refugees and Indigenous students.
“A refugee told me that it was his ambition to be a sports teacher and said how well he was now embedded in the local community. I met a girl whose life was derailing. She was at risk of being arrested before she gained admission to UC and is now acing everything in one of our toughest programs. Then there was an Indigenous girl. She told me her high school teacher told her that she wouldn’t amount to much … her aim now is to get distinctions in all her units. This university is doing something very special, and to be part of that is a privilege.”
This is a microcosm of what Deep has been able to achieve at UC, and reflects the progressive nature of Canberra itself.
Deep believes Canberra has given him plenty in return, emphasising the symbiotic relationship the city has with the University.
“It’s a perfect combination of a young, ambitious and sometimes restless university, in a young, ambitious city. The two come together so nicely, and I think with time, Canberra has such an important role in making UC a great university. UC has, conversely, a bigger responsibility and role in making this city a great city. It’s a very interesting hand-in-hand journey and I hope it continues.”
Deep speaks fondly about life in Canberra. Like many coming to the city from elsewhere, he had a perception of the city filled with bureaucrats. The reality, he discovered, is completely different.
Deep discovered a vibrant university, the pleasures of the Royal Canberra Golf Course, which provides what he calls “virtual meditation sessions” for him in summer evenings, and he delighted in taking long walks with his wife around Lake Burley Griffin. These are pursuits he lists among the memories he will take away from his time in Canberra.
He and wife Rani embedded themselves into Canberra life, so much so they became a fixture courtside at UC Capitals games, or cheering home the Brumbies.
It essentially allowed Deep to experience life away from what can sometimes be perceived as an ‘academic bubble’.
“We went to see sporting events to enjoy the sport. In the process I got to know a lot of people and this became a joyful opportunity to connect with the community,” says Deep.
And that connection with community was demonstrated last year when Deep spoke frankly and personally at a pub for Menslink about his own belief system and his outlook on life. He spoke about growing up in the Punjab region of India in the 1960s and attending poorly resourced schools.
“I have no inhibitions about talking about myself. I am who I am. I believe that if you are not true to who you are, then you are nobody.”
Deep’s outlook on life and connection with the Canberra community is a foundation of his role as Vice-Chancellor. At its broadest level, it is reflected in UC’s stated goals of becoming the University in, of and from Canberra.
“I leave with an immense amount of pride. During my time here, together with the people in this university, we have witnessed UC become the fastest rising university in the world and that is a tribute to the quality of people who work in this institution.
“I’ve had the pleasure of working with people who have gone so far, so quickly. We’re talking about a young university, a university that is tiny. We have a total of about 15,000 students in all locations, and a university that is challenged financially. It is through hard work, focus, belief and application that we are where we are now. That’s a phenomenal achievement. There are not that many places in the world that can claim that level of success.”
It hasn’t been without its challenges and Deep says the next step should be to protect what has been gained.
And during his time at the helm of UC, those gains have been significant.
Words by Tim Gavel. Photo: Courtesy of William Hall.