Graduation address


25 October 2007




Mr Chancellor, Madam Deputy Vice-Chancellor, colleagues, guests, and especially graduates.

I would like to congratulate all of you who are graduating tonight.

It is a great achievement to have completed a university degree, and you should all feel very, very proud of your accomplishment. This is one of the six great milestones in your life: the others being birth, death, marriage, parenthood and the day you finally pay off your HECS debt.

For the families and friends of graduates, it is also a time to celebrate and bask in some reflected glory. You have nurtured, encouraged and supported these graduands to get to this point, and you have every right to feel very proud today, too. Every one of you has had to make some sacrifices in order to be here tonight. As Martin Luther King Jr said

Nothing worthwhile is gained without sacrifice.

If a university degree was easy, it would not be such a valuable achievement.

This is a time for you to reflect on the past and contemplate what the future holds. That’s where I come in: the future is my business. I am a forecaster-I build mathematical models to help predict the future, and I train other people to do the same.

You might not realise that forecasting has been part of academic discourse for several thousand years. In the days of the Babylonian empire more than 2500 years ago, the students in the court of Babylon were taught to forecast using sheep’s livers. When the king went to war, one of his advisers would carry a rotting sheep’s liver. If a forecast was required, such as whether the next battle would be won or lost, the liver carrier would investigate the distribution of maggots in the liver. Certain patterns were omens of victory. Other patterns were omens of defeat.

We don’t use sheep livers at Monash, although some of our software still has bugs. But we still do forecasting, and I’d like to do a spot of forecasting for you tonight. I have two predictions to make.

  1. Much of what you’ve learned will soon be irrelevant.
  2. You will face problems that no-one has ever solved.

I guess the maggots aren’t in your favour tonight.

Let me explain what I mean.

1. Most of the detail of what you’ve learned here at Monash will be irrelevant within a few years. You may be proud of your mastery of the theory in your discipline and the techniques required in applying it, but the reality is that such details will only be valuable to you in the short-term.

The modern world is a dynamic environment, always changing and evolving. Consequently, specific methods, techniques and even theories will become redundant and out-dated before long. Some research suggests that a young person starting off on their careers today will change their jobs between 12 and 25 times, and work in up to five industry sectors during their working lives. You will need to continually up-date, retrain and re-educate to play a long-term role in the world.

But this is good news, not bad. While you have learned some things at Monash, you have also been taught how to learn things. One of the most important things you have learned here is how to think through problems, find solutions, and explore ideas. These skills will stand you in good stead throughout your lives, even when the specific details of what you have learned cease to be relevant.

2. You will have to deal with much greater challenges than any generation that has gone before you. No other generation has had to face the consequences of climate change, the devastation of much of the natural environment, and the difficult task of maintaining peaceful cooperation in a world of shrinking resources and expanding populations. These are not just scientific problems, they are also business problems.

Wherever you go from here, and whatever you end up doing, you will inevitably have to make decisions with environmental and social consequences. Unfortunately, decisions are often made based on how much money will be made rather than how much good will be achieved.

It is a sad fact that over the last few decades there has been an increasing preoccupation with money. The worth of a person is measured by their income. The value of a company is assessed by its share price. Yet deep down you all know that the real values in life have nothing to do with money. As the American journalist Henry Mencken wrote

The chief value of money lies in the fact that one lives in a world in which it is overestimated.

You will need to think beyond your immediate training in accounting, finance and business, to address the daunting challenges facing our world in a way that recognizes social, environmental and moral values, as well as the financial situation.

This is an exciting time to be alive. Although our world is an uncertain and changing environment, it is also full of possibilities and there is a certain sense of adventure in the journey. There are two possible responses you can make to a changing world. First, you can be tossed to and fro wherever the waves of change take you. If you follow that course, you will be miserable, helpless and ineffective. Alternatively, you can embrace the changes that happen, ride the waves of uncertainty, and drive further changes yourself. Following that course will lead you to continue achieving, learning and improving. Most progress has come from people who were not content to accept the status quo, but were driven by a desire to improve things. Change is hard, but stagnation is fatal!

I hope you can look back on your experience of university recognizing the privilege of being here. Universities are wonderful places to be. I never intended becoming an academic, but I could never bear to leave. The 19th century British Poet Laureate, John Masefield, wrote

There are few earthly things more beautiful than a university … a place where those who hate ignorance may strive to know, where those who perceive truth may strive to make others see.

I hope Monash has helped you grow to see the world more clearly and yourself more honestly.

Once again, I congratulate you and I wish you well for the future, whatever shape it takes.