Farewell to a leader and change maker

Q&A with former Vice-Chancellor and President Professor Peter Høj

An image of retiring UQ Vice-Chancellor and President Professor Peter Høj AC

After almost eight years at the helm of UQ, Professor Peter Høj AC has retired as Vice-Chancellor and President at the end of July. Before departing, he sat down with Contact to discuss his legacy, the impact of the pandemic and the benefits of “sleeping fast”.


Q: What are you most proud of during your time as UQ’s Vice-Chancellor and President?

A: I’m particularly proud of the improvement in the University’s global standing, where UQ is now recognised as one of the world’s top 50 universities amongst the more than 10,000 universities worldwide and we have moved into the top echelon of Asian universities.

I am also extremely proud that our research is having a real impact, which is exemplified by the fact that we now have one of the world’s leading vaccine candidates for COVID-19.


It’s wonderful to see UQ researchers addressing one of the biggest issues that the world has ever faced.

For a research-intensive university, we are also clearly the Australian university with the highest student satisfaction in our teaching and learning quality.

I’m also very proud that with the construction of our 64-megawatt Warwick Solar Farm, UQ will be the first major university in the world to produce more electricity than we consume. That’s an example of the University showing leadership when it comes to action on climate change. It’s an example that I hope others will soon follow.

Another thing I’m proud of is that we developed a Reconciliation Action Plan that is being pursued with vigour. This is not a plan that has been left on the shelf. We have already seen a pleasing growth in Indigenous employees and the number of Indigenous students is growing across UQ.

We’ve also promoted a more family-friendly working environment by building three new childcare centres at UQ. We invested in those centres because we know that having childcare at work helps people to return to work earlier after having a baby. It makes life easier for them and gives them more time to progress their careers. That’s particularly important for women because, unfortunately, we still live in an era where child-rearing falls disproportionately to women.

Q: What do you see as your legacy at UQ?

A: My greatest legacy is that during my tenure as Vice-Chancellor and President, we have graduated about 90,000 students. That’s 90,000 people who will now be able to contribute to society in a way they wouldn’t have been able to before they came here. I know that many of these people will go on to do positive things that benefit society.

I hope I’ll be remembered as someone of integrity and principles, who was prepared to make some difficult decisions and who always acted in the best interests of UQ's students and staff.

An image of Vice-Chancellor and President Professor Peter Høj AC, Chancellor Peter Varghese AO, Reconciliation Action Plan Steering Committee Co-Chair Gaja Kerry Charlton, and Pro-Vice-Chancellor (Indigenous Engagement) Professor Bronwyn Fredericks at the launch of UQ's Reconciliation Action Plan.

Vice-Chancellor and President Professor Peter Høj AC, Chancellor Peter Varghese AO, Reconciliation Action Plan Steering Committee Co-Chair Gaja Kerry Charlton, and Pro-Vice-Chancellor (Indigenous Engagement) Professor Bronwyn Fredericks at the launch of UQ's Reconciliation Action Plan.

Vice-Chancellor and President Professor Peter Høj AC, Chancellor Peter Varghese AO, Reconciliation Action Plan Steering Committee Co-Chair Gaja Kerry Charlton, and Pro-Vice-Chancellor (Indigenous Engagement) Professor Bronwyn Fredericks at the launch of UQ's Reconciliation Action Plan.

Q: What are the biggest risks you’ve taken in your time at UQ?

A: A few decisions I’ve made took some time to prove their value, and others I feel confident will be particularly valuable to UQ in the future. For example, in 2013, we established a partnership with edX, the world’s foremost provider of massive open online courses (MOOCs), a big risk at the time. Today, UQ has reached more than 3 million online learners through that platform.

Another important risk was the creation of the Queensland Emory Drug Discovery Initiative (QEDDI), which is funded by our commercialisation returns. Instead of putting all the returns from our commercialisation activities into the daily operations of the University, we decided to invest it in further innovation, which could generate more discovery royalties. We have assembled a world-class team of pharmaceutical scientists at QEDDI and I’m confident we will see great outcomes from that in the future. Sometimes you just have to stick with a good idea and not blink.

Finally, I made the decision early on to transfer our beautiful Ipswich campus to University of Southern Queensland in a balanced deal that was fair to both parties and has suited the Ipswich community really well.

Q: As Vice-Chancellor, you deal with such a wide variety of people. How have you approached balancing the interests and opinions of so many different stakeholders?

A: There’s that great saying, “You’ve been given two ears and one mouth and you should use them in that proportion”. I think that’s very true. As a leader, you have to acknowledge that you don’t have all the answers and that your decision-making is improved by listening to and carefully considering the input of the University’s many stakeholders.

Q: Your role as VC must have been incredibly demanding at times. How have you managed to juggle the many issues that you’ve been dealing with?

A: It is demanding. I’ve had to work really long hours to stay on top of the demands of the job. I am very fortunate in that I do not need to sleep much. I’ve always told people that I can do this job because I’ve learnt to sleep fast and I have an incredibly supportive and loving family!

Vice-Chancellor and President Professor Peter Høj AC launching Not If, When – The Campaign to Create Change, UQ's first comprehensive philanthropic campaign.

Q: Why has it been so important to you that the University deepens its relations with the alumni community?

A: Our alumni are the University’s most important ambassadors. As our alumni become great contributors to our community and the world, it demonstrates the benefits of a UQ education to our future students. So, they make an enormous contribution to the University just by being great citizens.

I think we’ve had tremendous success in improving how we connect with our alumni and they’ve been very supportive of UQ through their giving. We launched our first major philanthropic campaign in 2017 and, with the strong support of our alumni community, we exceeded all expectations and we’re on track to surpass our philanthropic goal.

Q: You have consistently championed philanthropy and made your own personal donations to UQ. What has motivated you to give?

A: When I was young, growing up in Denmark, my family and I lost all of our possessions and had to move into a one-bedroom flat for 10 years. Despite this, I never felt disadvantaged and was never denied opportunities to gain an education.


So, I’ve always felt that talent and effort should be the factors that determine whether you’re successful or not.

My philanthropy has been motivated by wanting to ensure that others are given the same opportunities that I enjoyed, regardless of their background or financial circumstances.

When I was Vice-Chancellor and President of the University of South Australia, I donated money to help students from rural and remote regions transition to studying in Adelaide. At UQ, I’ve created an accommodation scholarship for Indigenous students that’s now so well resourced it will continue in perpetuity. It’s incredibly satisfying to donate in a way where you know that it’s going to have a real impact and help change the direction of someone’s life.

Paula Liveris, Vice-Chancellor and President Professor Peter Høj AC, Andrew N. Liveris and Chancellor Peter Varghese AO turn the soil at the site of UQ's Andrew N. Liveris Academy for Innovation and Leadership, which was a result of a generous philanthropic gift from the Liverises.

Q: What has been the biggest single change in the Higher Education sector during your eight years at UQ?

A: The biggest change I’ve seen is the continuing decline in real terms in government investment in universities and, hence, the need to derive an increasing share of university funding from international students.

That income from international student fees has now become vital to supporting the national research capability that we need to remain a strong and globally competitive economy.

Up until the pandemic, Australian universities had developed the education sector into Australia’s fourth biggest export industry, worth around $40 billion per year and supporting 250,000 jobs. It’s a sector that generates significant flow-on benefits for our wider economy. In the absence of compensatory government funding, it’s going to be vitally important for our nation to get those international students returning safely to Australian campuses soon. Alternatively, Australia must find another way of funding the research required to keep us prosperous and socially cohesive.

An image of Vice-Chancellor and President Professor Peter Høj AC launching Not If, When – The Campaign to Create Change, UQ's first comprehensive philanthropic campaign.

Vice-Chancellor and President Professor Peter Høj AC launching Not If, When – The Campaign to Create Change, UQ's first comprehensive philanthropic campaign.

Vice-Chancellor and President Professor Peter Høj AC launching Not If, When – The Campaign to Create Change, UQ's first comprehensive philanthropic campaign.

An image of Paula Liveris, Vice-Chancellor and President Professor Peter Høj AC, Andrew N. Liveris and Chancellor Peter Varghese AO turn the soil at the site of UQ's Andrew N. Liveris Academy for Innovation and Leadership, which was a result of a generous philanthropic gift from the Liverises.

Paula Liveris, Vice-Chancellor and President Professor Peter Høj AC, Andrew N. Liveris and Chancellor Peter Varghese AO turn the soil at the site of UQ's Andrew N. Liveris Academy for Innovation and Leadership, which was a result of a generous philanthropic gift from the Liverises.

Paula Liveris, Vice-Chancellor and President Professor Peter Høj AC, Andrew N. Liveris and Chancellor Peter Varghese AO turn the soil at the site of UQ's Andrew N. Liveris Academy for Innovation and Leadership, which was a result of a generous philanthropic gift from the Liverises.

An image of Minister for Natural Resources, Mines and Energy Anthony Lynham, Vice-Chancellor and President Professor Peter Høj AC, and Minister for State Development, Tourism and Innovation Kate Jones at the 64-megawatt Warwick Solar Farm.

Minister for Natural Resources, Mines and Energy Anthony Lynham, Vice-Chancellor and President Professor Peter Høj AC, and Minister for State Development, Tourism and Innovation Kate Jones at the 64-megawatt Warwick Solar Farm.

Minister for Natural Resources, Mines and Energy Anthony Lynham, Vice-Chancellor and President Professor Peter Høj AC, and Minister for State Development, Tourism and Innovation Kate Jones at the 64-megawatt Warwick Solar Farm.

Q: UQ has a strong history in the commercial translation of research. How important is it that we translate more of the University’s research into outcomes in the real world?

A: I think it’s exceedingly important that our universities become better at partnering with industry to translate our research into outcomes that are desired by our wider society.

We also need Australian businesses to understand that our universities have insights that can help them to truly transform. So, it’s not just a matter of looking over the fence and out into the world, it’s equally an issue of the world looking over the fence to see what we can deliver to them. That’s going to be crucial to driving the type of innovation in Australia that will contribute to the creation of new industries and jobs here.

As a nation, we need to focus our research effort into those areas of strategic strength where we can contribute to answering some of the world’s biggest problems. Hence, at UQ we do a lot of research into vaccines, new antibiotics and mental health, as well as energy generation and storage.

UQ’s research commercialisation company, UniQuest, has had more success in this area than any other research translation company in Australia, and is by some key measures (such as licensing fees) among the very best globally.

Q: The COVID-19 vaccine program is one of the most important research programs in UQ’s history. How have you felt about supporting that research over recent months?

A: It’s been an exhilarating journey. Even before the pandemic, our top researchers were already in a position to be at the vanguard, globally, of developing this vaccine.


The thing that has made me really proud is that our researchers have been able to develop their vaccine candidate at an unprecedented pace because of support from across UQ.

They’ve received support from senior management, UniQuest, Advancement, our alumni community and key professional staff.

We've also had financial support from the Queensland Government, the Australian Government and about 2600 other donors.

We are in human clinical trials now – and it’s looking to be one of the most promising vaccine candidates in the world. In partnership with CEPI, we’ve secured CSL as a trusted manufacturer, who have undertaken to produce and distribute the vaccine globally, assuming that it’s proven to be safe and effective. At a difficult time like this, it’s very satisfying to be part of something that offers hope of a brighter future.

Q: What are your plans for retirement?

A: I am finally going to live in the same city as my two grandchildren, who are aged 10 and five. So, I'm really looking forward to spending more time with them, Mandy and the rest of my family.