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New chief Ed Byrne wants Monash University on regional map 

IT is only Ed Byrne's second day back in the country and his first on the job as Monash University's new vice-chancellor, and outside his office the winter sun is shining on the gum trees, reminding him he is back home.

But it is the world that is very much on his mind.

Back from heading medicine and health at University College London since 2007, where he said his research resources were not far short of the total budget of the National Health and Medical Research Council, Professor Byrne is acutely aware of the tough competition Australian universities face to be globally relevant.

He said that, for Monash, the key to meeting that challenge would be to continue strengthening its offshore campuses to make them more research active and so position the university to tap international research agencies.

Speaking with an unhurried northeast English accent that he has retained since immigrating to Tasmania at age 15, Professor Byrne, 56, has an obliging manner, but he is quietly forthright on what he wants to achieve.

"Monash has the potential over the next few years, let's say the course of my vice-chancellorship, to become the outstanding university in this part of the world. And I don't just mean Australia, I mean the region," he told the HES.

Professor Byrne has inherited established campuses in Malaysia and South Africa as well as an emerging presence in India in alliance with the Indian Institute of Technology. While he rules out any near-term plans to establish further offshore campuses, he is determined to fully capitalise on what Monash already has.

He said the challenge for Australia, as a small country, was to concentrate its university research resources.

Smaller universities needed to focus on research "that makes a difference", he said, while even the larger universities must be increasingly strategic.

By tying funding to research excellence, he said, networks of excellence would naturally concentrate research across different institutions. These could be complemented by the government's plans for a system of direct compacts with universities to guide research towards areas of substantial need.

Professor Byrne said Monash had staked out ground in areas such as sustainability, climate, water and health, which he said were critical for Australia and which he would continue.

"Advances will be made where there is a massive concentration of resource," he said. "The danger for Australia is that it just spreads a small cake too thinly."

Professor Byrne backed the federal government's higher education changes and budget, even if the increased funding is staged and will leave the sector dependent on international fees in the near term.

"The government has made clear that higher education and research at universities are seen as incredibly important to Australia. One never got that impression from the previous government."

However, he said there was a case in the future for uncapping tuition fees within defined ranges to introduce price competition and encourage differentiation into the sector, while also providing scholarships for the disadvantaged. "If some institutions wish to invest more in supporting quality in education and have fees that support that experience, and students want to take advantage of it, I can't see that being a bad thing for the country."

The son of a general practitioner, Professor Byrne is a neurologist who was made an officer of the Order of Australia in 2006 for his research and clinical work, particularly in mitochondrial disease. He ran the Centre for Neuroscience at the University of Melbourne under former vice-chancellor David Pennington.

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