The Bradley Oration – The Great Hall, University of Sydney – Wednesday 16 November 2022



Tonight, we gather to honour someone who was a truly great Australian.

And hopefully forge an annual tradition where speakers talk not just of Denise and her legacy, but of what comes next.

The legacy we might build together, standing on her shoulders.

I think that would be a fitting tribute. 

And I suspect what Denise would want of us.

And so I begin, granted the honour of giving the first Bradley Oration, with that as my objective.

But first let me say thank you to the Bradley family.

To Denise’s husband Bruce and three of her four children who are here tonight, James, Patrick and Andrew.

Thank you for entrusting me with this.

I never knew Denise, but I so wish I had.

I asked Julia Gillard if she had one word to describe Denise what would it be, and she said “courageous”.

Of course, it’s an unfair question. You can’t sum up someone in a word.

Denise was brilliant and fearless. Razor sharp and tough as nails. Insightful and kind. And so much more.

But courage fits.

She wasn’t supposed to end up at university.

Her dad thought that was for the boys. Her brothers.

He refused to pay for Denise to come here to Sydney University.

He thought she should get married and have children.

But Denise wasn’t deterred.

She got a scholarship and made it here.

And if there is a moment in Denise’s life that stands out for me, this is it.

Her final year here at Sydney.

As a student of the great Professor Bill Connell.

It was Bill who instilled in Denise the idea of education as an agent of change.

It’s from that point that she would dedicate the rest of her life to what we all know is the most powerful cause for good.

The education of our children.

First as an English teacher.

Then as a Dean of Education.

Then a Deputy Vice Chancellor.

And then Vice Chancellor.

In 1997, when Denise became the Vice Chancellor of the University of South Australia, she was only the third woman to have run an Australian university.

Since then, 30 more women have done that.

That’s no accident.

There are so many women in leadership positions in our universities today who count Denise as a mentor.

One of those is Margaret Sheil, the Vice Chancellor of the Queensland University of Technology.

Margaret told me the story of how she applied for a Vice Chancellor’s position at another university. She didn’t get it. Denise was on the panel.

A couple of weeks later Denise appeared at her door. Unannounced. She was there to give her feedback and encouragement. To stick at it.

Vicki Thompson, the CEO of The Group of Eight told me:

“Denise was the person who got me into this uni palaver! She saw in me what I saw in her, a vulnerability masked by a defence mechanism of bravado. 

“Hers forged by being a single mother of four boys and challenges in her early life. Me coming from a housing commission background, first in a large family to finish year 12, let alone go to uni.”

Denise was also a mentor to Kirsten, our MC and the Vice-President, External Engagement here at Sydney University. Kirsten told me Denise was:

“Her fierce, feminist mentor. A little terrifying but totally awesome”.

Ask anybody who worked with Denise and they will tell you she was always willing to challenge the status quo. Always out front. Someone with an uncanny ability to identify the big and emerging issues and turn ideas into action. 

Or as great friend Peter Coaldrake put it:

“Her bullshit radar was excellent. And she listened to people on the basis of the value of what they said, not where they came from”.

It’s no wonder then that Julia Gillard asked her to lead the 2008 Review of Australian Higher Education.

What we now know as the Bradley Review.

It was an inspired choice.

Denise, Bill Scales, Helen Nugent and the late Peter Noonan, were a formidable team.

And they have left us with a precious legacy.

Out of it came the demand driven system and TEQSA. 

Targets for how many young Australians should have a degree by 2020.

Reforms to student income support.

And HEPPP that provides extra support to students from poor backgrounds, from the regions, and Indigenous Australians to get to university and graduate.

It’s now almost 15 years since the Bradley Review.

A lot has happened. A lot changed.

And some of those changes were permanent.

Others have been lost.

Some of the things we hoped for, were never reached.

We have flown past the target that 40 percent of young people 25-34 should have a university qualification.

Today more than 44 percent of 25-34 year-olds have a bachelor’s degree.

But the Bradley Review also set a target that, by 2020, 20 percent of undergraduate students at our universities should come from low socio-economic backgrounds.

2020 has come and gone. And that target still hasn’t been met. The dial has barely moved.

I have had the privilege now to be Education Minister for about six months.

I know the last few years haven’t been easy.

What I have been focused on is resetting the relationship between government and our universities.

Recognising the incredible work you do. 

Rebuilding our international education sector.

Kicking off a review of the ARC Act and putting an end to the political interference and delays that have beset it.

I have also allocated the 20,000 extra university places that we promised in the election campaign.

A few weeks into the job, a Vice Chancellor said to me:

“Minister, I know you’re concerned about people who are under-represented at university. Why don’t you allocate 5,000 of the 20,000 places to them”.

I thought about it, and I thought why don’t I allocate all 20,000 to them?

And so that’s what I have done.

To students from poor families. Students from regional Australia. Indigenous Australians. Australians with a disability, and Australians who are the first in their family to ever set foot in a university.

But that’s just the start.

And that brings me to the Accord.

Before the election my friend Tanya Plibersek talked about an opportunity to build a long-term plan for our universities.

An Accord that looks at everything from funding and access, to affordability, transparency, regulation, employment conditions and how higher education and vocational education and training can and should work together.

A big piece of work. An even bigger opportunity to make real long-lasting change.

The first big and broad review of higher education since the Bradley Review.

And tonight I can announce it will be led by a woman who knew Denise well.

She grew up in Mount Morgan, a gold mining town in central Queensland.

Her mum was an accountant and her dad was a science teacher.

Which might explain why she was so fascinated by mathematics and science.

She was the first woman to become the Dean of Engineering at any university in Australia.

And when Denise was Vice Chancellor at the University of South Australia, she was the Vice Chancellor of the university down the road, the University of Adelaide. 

They were friends and rivals.

Her name is Professor Mary O’Kane AC.

Mary will lead a team that also includes:

  • Professor Barney Glover AO, Vice-Chancellor of Western Sydney University, former Vice Chancellor of Charles Darwin University, former Deputy Vice-Chancellor of Research at the University of Newcastle and former Pro-Vice Chancellor Research and Development at Curtin University. 
  • Ms Shemara Wikramanayake, the first female Managing Director and Chief Executive Officer of Macquarie Group and a member of the former Government’s University Research Commercialisation Expert Panel;
  • the Hon. Jenny Macklin, former Minister for Families, Community Services and Indigenous Affairs.  The architect of Paid Parental Leave and the NDIS and instrumental in the National Apology to the Stolen Generations. 

And more recently the Chair of a review into Victoria’s post-secondary education and training system.  The Macklin Review.

  • Professor Larissa Behrendt AO, the first Indigenous Australian to graduate from Harvard Law School.

Larissa is a professor of law and the director of research and academic programs at the Jumbunna Institute for Indigenous Education and Research at the University of Technology Sydney.

Larissa was also the Chair of the 2012 Review of Higher Education Access and Outcomes for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander People; and

  • the Hon Fiona Nash, a former Senator for New South Wales, a former Minister for Regional Development, Regional Communications and Local Government and Territories and now Australia’s first Regional Education Commissioner.

Together they bring to bear enormous experience, in our universities, in business and public policy.

A mix of experience in STEM and humanities. From our cities and our regions. From across the political divide.

There will also be a Ministerial Reference Group that I will Chair that will act as a sounding board for the team and a source of advice.

It will include representatives of students and staff, business and industry groups, higher education and vocational education peak bodies, the Chief Scientist and other experts.

I will finalise this broader group before Christmas.

Their task is big and broad.

What do we need to do to set our higher education system up for the next decade and beyond?

How do we make sure our universities remain some among the best in the world?

Are the engine rooms of commercial innovation and social progress.

What sort of targets do we need to set to make sure we have the skills we need for the jobs of the future?

And how do we get there?

How should we fund research?

How can we better connect vocational and higher education?

What regulatory and workplace changes are needed to better meet the needs of students and staff?

What changes should we make to the Job-ready Graduates Scheme?

Should we extend the demand driven system to all Indigenous students – not just those from regional and remote Australia?

And what can we do here in our universities to open the doors of opportunity wider?

To help us become a country where your chances in life don’t depend on who your parents are, where you come from or the colour of your skin.

I particularly want the team to zero in on this.

How do we hit the target that Denise set and that still eludes us? What new targets should we set? And how do we get there?

How can what we do here help turn the country of our imagination into something real?

I want the Accord to answer the tough questions.

I want new ideas.

And I want to do this together.

I want to build a broad consensus. An Accord.

I want this to be a something that inspires us – and outlasts us.

Lasting reform.

I want it to remind us that universities at their best have a soul.

Look to the future not the past.

To provide us with a compass to chart our path.

And I want it to be something Denise would be proud of. 

Let me finish with Denise’s own words.


“I’ve often been afraid of failing, of looking like a fool or of saying things I know will be unpopular. I have found myself in many uncomfortable spots.

“But I learnt that you don’t achieve anything if you don’t take risks.

“We all have only one life. I believe it needs to be one where we strive to be the best person we can be and to add something to the lives of others.”


Denise did that and then some.

May we all be so courageous.