Vice-Chancellor, Professor Duncan Maskell’s speech

Retrieved from: St Hilda’s College 60th Anniversary Celebration (

The Vice-Chancellor’s address to the St Hilda’s College community on the occasion of the College’s 60th anniversary, delivered on Saturday 20 April 2024.

Thank you, James.

I begin by acknowledging the traditional owners of the land on which we live and learn. I pay my respects to Indigenous Elders, past and present, and I acknowledge all Indigenous people here at St Hilda’s today.

It’s fantastic to be here this afternoon, as we gather together in a beautiful garden to remember the founding of St Hilda’s College 60 years ago – almost exactly to the day.

To know and honour our history is extremely important, so it is great that the whole community around St Hilda’s – alumni, staff, current students, patrons – have shown such enthusiasm this year as the college – and indeed the University – celebrate this 60th anniversary milestone.

Over the past week I have learned more about this history than I knew before, and I have found it both interesting and encouraging.

I find it interesting because like all great colleges, the history here is absolutely unique.

I also find it encouraging because at so many levels, the values and experiences that make St Hilda’s what it is are values and experiences that I warmly endorse. One of those key values – echoed in this garden, and in the college motto – is of course community.

This theme of community goes back to the college’s very founding, and indeed even earlier.

In her Foreword to the first volume of the St Hilda’s history, Forerunners and Foundations, Jean McCaughey – herself an important scholar and social reformer, and an honoured figure in the University’s history – noted the ‘remarkable amount of community and voluntary support’ that enabled St Hilda’s college to be founded in the early 1960s.

That widespread support included fundraising efforts from ‘the general community’ across the whole state of Victoria for what was, of course, initially founded as a women’s only college.

Although St Hilda’s became ‘co-ed’ in 1973, it is a mark of honour that it retains a powerful connection to communities beyond Melbourne today, with more than 50 per cent of the current college student population hailing from regional and rural Australia.

Many people, including Jean McCaughey, have spoken of the outstanding leadership of Lady Alice Paton in bringing St Hilda’s to life. Indeed, we often read that when the college was officially opened, the ceremonies were performed by both Lady Paton and the then Prime Minister Sir Robert Menzies.

And although Robert Menzies was a great supporter of higher education and of colleges, of the two of them it was certainly Lady Paton who had the greater influence in the founding of this place. She led the cause for the college within the University and out in the wider community by passionately advocating for it and spent enormous care and effort helping make it into the successful college that it has become. I am pleased that one of the children of Lady Paton and Vice-Chancellor Paton, their son Frank, is here today.

I am also aware that alongside Alice Paton, a figure who should be mentioned in connection with the founding history is the college’s first Principal Marjorie Smart, whose memory we also honour today through the Marjorie Smart Oration, to be delivered by Katie Foulkes. And I look forward to Katie’s address.

As most of you probably know, I arrived in this country just over five years ago. My experience of college life centred around a different university, the University of Cambridge.

I was the first person in my family to attend university at all. I think that ‘first in family’ experience of university, particularly if lived in a college setting, can be one of the most powerful experiences in any person’s life.

I was fortunate enough to earn entrance to Cambridge as an undergraduate, I went on to complete my PhD there before becoming a researcher working in microbiology and infectious diseases.

I think that you who know St Hilda’s well, and with my experience of college life at Cambridge, we can consider ourselves extremely fortunate to have experienced college life in a great university. To live in college is especially formative when you are from a background like I was then – smart enough perhaps, but essentially unfamiliar with the challenges, and also the excitement of university life.

I am especially glad that I was able to live and learn in college throughout my undergraduate years – and that is something that may also resonate here at St Hilda’s, which proudly remains to this day an undergraduate only college.

In those formative years, the people you meet from so many different places – people who bring with them so many varied interests and knowledge of many disparate kinds – are an absolute gift to a growing mind.

To be able to meet so many interesting people in a supportive and respectful environment – to form friendships, learn how to converse, discover your own thoughts and opinions, to disagree respectfully and still make friendships – these combine to make a great opportunity for any young person lucky enough to experience it.

It is an opportunity that should matter to society. Yes, college and university life gave me great opportunities and benefits at a personal level – but it is also a very good thing for the wider world if more and more people get similar opportunities, because of what they can go on to contribute afterwards.

If we can see the benefits of the college and university experience in our own lives, it is not hard to image the multiplier effect of that experience being shared by hundreds, thousands, tens of thousands of others, across a nation, around the world.

With this background, it may not surprise people that a project that I am strongly committed to as Vice-Chancellor here is the Narrm Scholarships initiative. This has only just begun, with the first ever cohort of Narrm Scholars – more than 600 undergraduate students – having started here at the University in 2024.

And it will expand and develop significantly from 2025, with the colleges, including St Hilda’s, playing a key role.

The Narrm Scholars is an important program that we believe will transform more young students’ lives, by bringing in a higher proportion of undergraduate students from traditionally disadvantaged backgrounds – in a nutshell, students who are experiencing financial disadvantage, students from regional and remote areas (who are experiencing financial disadvantage), and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students.

I know that these are the communities and the demographics that many of the colleges at Melbourne seek to support each and every year.

In its second year, next year, the Narrm Scholarships program will see a significantly increased financial commitment for these students, aided by a collaborative effort between colleges and the university.

The guiding idea is to significantly expand opportunities for students in these cohorts, particularly through scholarships. And it is exciting for me to see the commitment with which the Narrm Scholarships are being taken up and talked up by colleagues across the University of Melbourne at the moment.

On this note, I express particular gratitude this morning to the leadership of St Hilda’s and the other University colleges, who are generously and enthusiastically getting behind this initiative, so that from 2025, we will see a good number of Narrm Scholars living in college with the support both of the colleges and the university.

Right now, we gather for this little ceremony in the Communitas Garden of St Hilda’s. It is a name that echoes the college motto, as I mentioned earlier, and it is a place that is filled with the memories of sixty years of college history. Many past residents will have important memories of times spent with others, here and in the dining room through the glass wall. It is a place that strongly suggests the idea and the fact of community, as a university college should.

This is very important, for the reasons that I’ve already given. One final reason that it matters goes to the deeper purpose of what a university, ultimately, is all about.

Though it may not always look this way, a great university is a place where the exchange of ideas and knowledge can take place in an atmosphere characterised by respect for all individuals at a personal level, respect for education as a never-ending process in which we challenge each other and learn from each other and understanding that all of this works best when it happens in a place that is truly a community.

This is why, through my time as Vice-Chancellor at Melbourne, I have emphasised and will continue to emphasise the central importance for us, collegiate and non-collegiate members of the University, of working at having a place that is a truly outstanding learning and research community.

It is also why you will find the word ‘Community’ enshrined now as one of the University’s guiding Strategic principles as we plan towards the year 2030.

The contribution of St Hilda’s towards building a community – here in college certainly, but also as a part of this wider University of Melbourne – during the past 60 years is by every account, and my own observation of the past five years, outstanding.

Along with that of our other great colleges, the contribution by St Hilda’s will only grow in importance, for the University of Melbourne and most importantly for every student who will pass through this place, in the years ahead.

I thank every member of this whole college community for their past contributions and look forward to our joint efforts together in years to come.

Thank you.