People@Murdoch talks to Professor Peter Waring, Pro Vice Chancellor of Transnational Education and Dean of the University’s Singapore campus.
In his father’s footsteps
Growing up, Peter Waring didn’t have far to look to witness the transformational power of a university education.
Peter’s father Trevor left school at the age of 15 to work at the BHP steel works in Newcastle, NSW. But a keen intellect, a determined wife in Helen and a passion for social justice led him to night school; undergraduate, and Master degrees at the University of Newcastle; an Honorary Doctorate; and ultimately the position of Chancellor at his alma mater.
“It was an extraordinary journey and it was almost didn’t happen,” Peter said. “Dad worked at the steel works all day, he had a young family, and he was studying in the evenings.
“It was a big load and at the end of his first year as an undergraduate, he had failed every unit.
“My mother was in hospital, having just given birth, and he told her he was giving it away, but she insisted: ‘No you must keep going’. And so, he did.”
University tuition at that time was expensive and Trevor was struggling with the fees. A group of his professors, however, stepped in to provide financial support. Inspired, he recommitted and did well – focusing his studies on clinical psychology.
With credentials in hand, he went on to run Newcastle’s first youth mental health service and developed a thriving private practice with a focus on providing support to the most vulnerable people in the community. It was not uncommon for Peter’s parents to offer a bed to a woman fleeing domestic violence, for example. Meanwhile, Trevor continued his post-graduate studies and ultimately became known as one Australia’s foremost experts on suicide prevention.
Peter was born in 1973, the youngest of four. The impact of his father’s experiences was profound on all the children.
“That was my lived experience – watching this transformative journey through education,” he said. “When it becomes your life, it becomes very real. I think not going to university was not really an option for me!”
Peter’s childhood involved hours of adventure and play in the bushland and beaches of Newcastle, playing cricket until darkness made the ball impossible to see, fishing and bike riding.
A good student, Peter went on to study economics at the University of Newcastle.
“I won a scholarship to do a PhD and after that, I was appointed at the age of 26 as a pretty young academic,” he said. “It was then – in the early 2000s – that my wife Tiffany, who worked for Dell Computer, was asked to do a three-month stint in Penang, Malaysia.
“I would travel up occasionally to see her, but the three months became six months, and then that was extended. So, I moved there and was able to teach at universities throughout Asia.
“Ultimately, Tiffany was promoted to a more senior position in the Singapore office and, by then, I had a post-doctoral research fellowship, so it didn’t really matter where I was based.”
Having also studied law, Peter’s research focused on employment law and industrial relations. His research continued for three years before he took up a role establishing a branch campus of the University of New South Wales, then becoming Academic Director at the University of Newcastle.
“I then saw that Murdoch was looking for a leader in Singapore,” he said. “I knew the brand was pretty well known here but I also knew that Murdoch didn’t have a real presence.
“There was no office, there was no staff. It was more or less a franchising arrangement. In taking on the job, it was my task to improve quality. I began by setting up an office, which I did with Jenny Crawford (now Manager Transnational Education), and I remember we had a very limited budget, so we went out to Ikea to get some office furniture and we put it together!
“Then we started to appoint critical staff, so we had an admissions team here – just one person really – then we appointed a learning support lecturer and other lecturers for key disciplines.
“We changed the model of transnational education for the University and it worked. Numbers began to grow, and student satisfaction, retention and progression all improved.
“Something I’m really proud of is that we have here in Singapore the best student retention and progression levels of any Murdoch location. I’m also really proud of the fact that we have 25,000 (of around 90,000) of the University’s alumni based in Singapore. That’s just amazing – it’s more than a quarter of the University’s total alumni!
“The Murdoch brand is now so well recognised around Singapore. Murdoch is viewed as the quintessential Australian university, standing for quality, student choice and flexibility, with our double major offerings and unique degree architecture being really attractive to students.”
While the higher education environment in Australia is extremely challenging, Murdoch Singapore continues to grow. In 2021, and despite COVID, commencing enrolments increased by 7%, driving record revenue 18% over budget to around $20 million. Murdoch Dubai, which Peter also has oversight of, more than doubled commencing enrolments in 2021.
COVID lockdowns in Singapore were severe and lengthy, but Peter said students adapted very well to online learning – and many preferred it. Information Technology and Business are the most popular courses there, but a gamble on the introduction of Criminology courses a few years back is also paying big dividends.
While Murdoch Singapore is a small team of 12, they are constantly looking to innovate and expand. They have created the Singapore Centre for Research on Innovation, Productivity and Technology (SCRIPT) – one of Australia’s first research and development centres based in Singapore – and launched Murdoch Edge in 2019 to improve the career readiness of students.
Peter is proud of the excellent name Murdoch has in Singapore and he’s excited about the opportunity for further growth, with the Commonwealth driving a new national international education strategy that flips the script on how Australian university education is delivered.
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