Honouring a debt of gratitude
For David Barnsdall OAM, the decision to leave a Gift in Will was the opportunity to make good on a life enriched by UNSW and its community.
As a schoolboy in Sydney’s Maroubra in the 1950s, David Barnsdall OAM, wasn’t expecting a university education, much less a life that would be guided and enriched by the relationships he formed on campus.
Yet, almost seventy years after enrolling in a Bachelor of Commerce degree almost “by accident”, he has become one of UNSW’s staunchest allies, providing financial guidance on the development of residential colleges, lending hands-on support to an education initiative at a local high school, establishing a scholarship for disadvantaged students, and now making the commitment to leave the University a Gift in Will.
Straight after high school, David started work at a firm of accountants, supplemented by night classes in accounting at Sydney Technical College. Not long after he started, a decision was made to transfer the students into a newly established Bachelor of Commerce degree at the New South Wales University of Technology, soon to become the University of New South Wales (UNSW). This occurred in 1955, the same year that UNSW’s Business School started as a single Faculty of Commerce.
“Being one of the first part-time graduates in commerce, we covered a wide variety of subjects including psychology and logic and other optional subjects. I chose “history”, and our lecturer was Professor Ken Cable, who encouraged an active interest in history which I still have to this day.”
Over six years, David put in a day’s work at the office, then shifted himself and his books to the Kensington campus to attend lectures and study after hours. The load was heavy, but the future held promise. Towards the end of his degree, Professor Smyth, then the head of the School of Accountancy, said to David: “Look, with this qualification you’ve got, you could really do anything.”
What followed was a series of introductions that enabled David to spend his first years as a graduate taking advantage of opportunities in Montreal, London and the US. On his return to Sydney, his old contacts at the University got in touch with him again, recommending him for a position that would establish David in the accounting profession, here at home.
After David's return from overseas in 1964, through contacts from UNSW, he took up a position in the firm of Greenwood Challoner as a Manager. Twelve months later he was admitted to the Partnership. Later he was a foundation partner of the firm Young, Barnsdall & Joye. During his tenure, he was appointed as auditor for two of the University’s residential colleges: New College and Warrane College.
Throughout his career, David used his professional skills to support and inform numerous causes. His passion for good works has always been matched by a steely pragmatism.
“I’m an accountant and, at the end of the day, you have to have the money to make it all work, and that’s been my department,” he says. “You need the money. You need to see where it’s going, what’s happening, and what the results are. A lot of people like to talk about the ideology of things, but it’s about getting results!”
In 1996, David was one of the founders of Hamlin Fistula Australia, an organisation led by the late Dr Catherine Hamlin AC, that funded the expansion of the Addis Ababa Fistula Hospital in Ethiopia, and the creation of the Hamlin College of Midwives. In addition to serving as a Deputy Chairman and Chairman of the organisation, David was also instrumental in establishing the Hamlin Fistula International Foundation, the Hamlin Fistula Trust in the USA, and the New Zealand Hamlin Trust. In 2011, he was awarded the Medal of the Order of Australia for his work.
Alongside these commitments, David has continued to be involved with UNSW as a keen and active supporter of its work.
For many years, he has been connected with the successful UNSW Matraville Education Partnership, an initiative that provides support to the diverse student community of Matraville Sports High School in Sydney’s south. In 2015, when the initiative was launched, the school was burdened by low enrolments and academic under-performance. In recent years, those measures have been shifting in response to a program that includes one-on-one maths and literacy support from UNSW undergraduates, an afterschool homework centre, enrichment programs for gifted students, a lecture series for parents, and a Culture, Curriculum and Community Project, run collaboratively by Matraville High teachers and the La Perouse Aboriginal Community.
In 2021, David donated $25,000 to the UNSW Scholarships program to establish the David Barnsdall OAM Equity Scholarship, with the intention of supporting students experiencing disadvantage to complete a five-year undergraduate degree. In so doing, he was directly addressing one of the most common and pernicious barriers to a life-changing university education: finance.
Research commissioned by the Department of Education in 2016 found that Year 11 students from low socio-economic backgrounds were significantly less likely than their peers to be planning for a university education and that among those who did not plan to go, almost two in three cited financial reasons.
In the same year, the Australian Census results indicated that the likelihood of someone being enrolled in or having completed a university degree was substantially different depending on their personal circumstances: just under 67% for those in the highest socio-economic decile; less than 18% of those in the lowest decile.
David is committed to ensuring that the benefits he gained from his time at UNSW are accessible to all.
“I owe a debt to the University because my professional career started here,” he says. “And I formed friendships that have lasted to this day. The people I collaborated with and the networks I made then, still keep in touch with me today.”
David’s connections with the University continue to grow stronger. One of his granddaughters and her husband have both graduated from UNSW, and he has recently made a commitment to leave a Gift in Will to UNSW supporting UNSW’s Matraville Education Partnership, ensuring that his contributions to the University and its good works extend far beyond his own lifetime.
“The UNSW Alumni organisation is extremely concerned about people, and I think they’re doing outstanding work. I am very supportive of the University, what it is doing and the way it is going, and that’s why I have chosen to leave them a donation as part of my will,” David says.