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Retiring Tannock takes Notre Dame to next level

It's a widely held view that the 1987 America's Cup revived Fremantle's fortunes and helped shape the port city's development.

But what is less well recognised is the role the speculative property boom of the late 1980s and early 1990s, and the bust that followed it, played in opening the door for a new player in Western Australia's tertiary education sector.

The University of Notre Dame Australia moved into Fremantle's west end at a time when property owners were keen to offload their assets, opening its main campus in 1992 with just 70 students and an operating budget in six figures.

Today, the university has close to 7,000 students across three campuses - 5,500 in Fremantle - and $70 million in the coffers.

It's a transformation that has been moulded to a large degree by vice-chancellor Dr Peter Tannock, who will step down in July after 16 years in the role.

And while the university now offers undergraduate courses across eight schools, finding a niche in WA has been a slow process.

"It's a very informed market, and it took us quite a while to persuade the market and our prospective students that we were worth the commitment they had to make in order to come here," Dr Tannock told WA Business News.

The turning point came about eight years ago, when the university broke into the black for the first time.

Student enrolments also started to take off, trebling in the six years from 2002.

While Dr Tannock largely attributes this to time spent in the market, he said the environment of the Fremantle campus was a strong drawcard.

"In the early 1990s, most of the buildings in the west end of Fremantle were derelict and unoccupied. But partly, maybe even substantially, because of the university's presence in the west end, [it's turned around]. We've acquired or leased a lot of buildings down here and spent a lot of money," Dr Tannock said.

In fact, Notre Dame has invested more than $80 million in the area, buying and refurbishing buildings in partnership with local heritage architects, Marcus Collins and Associates.

It now has a footprint of 46 sites, only two of which will house new buildings.

This role of property developer has required the university to forge a good working relationship with the local council.

"I think it would be fair to say, when we started off the City of Fremantle had a mixed view of this so-called blessing of a university in the west end," Dr Tannock said.

"On the one hand, they liked the idea of these derelict, seemingly impossible-to-use buildings down here being used. On the other hand, they didn't want to be swamped by this university, and there were people saying [we were] blow-ins, 'they won't pay their way'."

It was in about 2001, when a formal memorandum of understanding was signed between Notre Dame and the City of Fremantle, that the relationship was cemented.

The document set a physical boundary for the university's expansion, and included a financial agreement, whereby the university would pay the city money in lieu of rates.

Having secured its home, Notre Dame had to shore up its finances, sourced from both government funding and private donations.

Dr Tannock, who was instrumental in bringing on board some of the university's donors, as well as corporate backers such as Wesfarmers, believes Perth's relatively small size was an advantage.

"In some ways, I think it would have been much harder to start the Notre Dame model in a place like Melbourne or Sydney," he said.

"There's an advantage in starting in a place like Western Australia, because people are quite entrepreneurial. The lines of communication are short and people are prepared to give you a go."

From a brand recognition point of view, Dr Tannock said he realised the university was gaining traction when several of its law graduates started clerking with some of WA's most senior legal professionals.

"I also knew that we had somehow or other cracked it when I saw that the first-year undergraduate enrolments comprised not only large numbers of candidates from the Catholic schools in WA, but almost equally from the major independent schools," he said.

"You get 40 or 50 students from a year 12 class at some of those big independent girls' schools coming in - that's a good sign."

With federal government funding to the tertiary sector becoming more targeted, Notre Dame has agreed to focus on its core areas of health and education.

Its flagship undergraduate courses - nursing, teaching and medicine - will continue to attract the most resources, while others such as physiotherapy are expected to grow.

While securing accreditation from those professions, particularly medicine, was one of the bigger hurdles the university faced, Dr Tannock believes the battle has been won.

"This year some of the universities struggled to fill their places. We had an 11 per cent growth on our Fremantle campus in first-year enrolments," he said.

Dr Tannock, who was chairman of the WA Football Commission for 10 years and director of Catholic Education in WA, has no set plans for retirement.

He will hand over to incoming vice-chancellor and former head of the university's law school, Professor Celia Hammond, in July.

Professor Hammond has been employed at Notre Dame for 11 years, and has served as the university's general counsel and executive director of the vice-chancellery.

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