Baroness Valerie Amos certainly left her mark when she visited Melbourne last week to deliver the Menzies Oration on Higher Education.

Lady Amos, former UN Under-Secretary for Humanitarian Affairs, spoke of her experiences during seven visits to Syria on the Policy Shop podcast with University of Melbourne Vice-Chancellor, Glyn Davis. She also spoke to The Conversation UK and The Australian about free speech and the fact that universities should be places where people are challenged by views different from their own.

These are the themes Lady Amos, Director of the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) at the University of London, also took up during the 25th Menzies Oration at the University of Melbourne.

The 2016 Oration – held annually to recognise Sir Robert’s vision for strengthening the role of higher education – was a call to universities to continue to play their role in protecting freedom of speech.

Her own experience in defending this role of universities is quite real and as provided her with a number of challenges in her first year as Director of SOAS.

As part of her Oration, Lady Amos said “for me higher education institutions and what they stand for have a significant impact on the development of societies because they provide a space for critical engagement, for debate and discussion of contentious issues and are places of learning and unlearning.

Menzies Oration 2016“Universities open up opportunities for creativity, innovation and the pursuit of knowledge. And where they do their job really well, they help students to learn to listen, to understand another point of view, to respectfully disagree rather than dismiss and ignore.”

Lady Amos also used many examples to highlight the continued barriers across the world to equality of access to and participation in education, in particular highlighting the participation rates of around 50 per cent in mature systems of higher education like our own, contrasted with 6 per cent on the African continent.

“Global inequality remains a significant factor in determining who gets to university and whether they remain there.”

Lady Amos also put something of a challenge out to the outstanding University of Melbourne PhD students, who were at the Oration as part of their graduation ceremony. “Our students today are tomorrow’s leaders and given the challenges we face in our world – injustice, inequality, the effects of climate change and environmental degradation, conflict, extremism – we need them to be active global citizens. We need them to think beyond borders.”

A full transcript of Lady Amos’ Oration is available on our website. It is well worth a read to get a better understanding of her views on the impacts of increased competition on higher education around the world, on the #rhodesmustfall campaign and the role of universities in developing global citizens.

The Baroness also visited the Menzies Foundation to meet with Melbourne-based alumni and Menzies Directors, taking questions on a range of topics from Syria to Brexit. She also showed great interest in the work of Menzies Scholars such as Dr Kerry Proctor’s PhD project to reduce suicide risk and increase safety in schools for at risk youth, and her current role leading the Indigenous Program at The Bouverie Centre.

Pictured: Menzies Foundation Deputy Chair, Dr John Stocker AO, Baroness Valerie Amos CH PC and Mr Alec Menzies, grandson of Sir Robert, who presented the Menzies Oration medallion to Lady Amos.