No room for higher education complacency

By Alan Finkel AO

In 1946, the year ANU was founded, the world’s first electronic general purpose computer was unveiled to the public in Philadelphia, US. And there was plenty of it to see.

The Electronic Numerical Integrator and Computer (ENIAC) was the largest collection of interconnected electronic circuitry of its time.

Its 17,468 vacuum tubes, 70,000 resistors and five million hand-soldered joints took up the floor-space of a modern three-bedroom apartment.

It weighed as much as two double-decker buses combined. It was known to spontaneously ignite if left untended overnight.  

So that, to the founders of ANU, was a ‘computer’ – to the extent that the word or the concept entered into their conversations at all.

Fast-forward seven decades and ENIAC’s descendants dominate all aspects of ANU life.

The average student has a phone in their pocket with five million times the processing power of ENIAC.

And while that student may be taking notes in the Manning Clark Centre, he or she could just as easily be perched at a kitchen table on the opposite side of the world. We can graduate these days without a whiff of Sullivans Creek.

There is much to celebrate in this brave new world of higher education and not least the massive growth in the share of the population served.

In 1946, Australian universities combined supported a grand total of 25,585 students – less than six per cent of the population in the 18 to 25 age bracket.

Today, ANU alone has more than 22,500 students and communicates with a global audience as large as it has the will and creativity to reach.

Not only is higher education more accessible, in many settings it has also been greatly enriched.