2017: the higher education year in review

15 December 2017

It’s been a rollercoaster of a year in higher education in Australia. 

Universities Australia has led a vast program of work on behalf of the sector – driving advocacy on a wide array of issues affecting our members.

Here we recap a few of the major undertakings and issues we’ve navigated in 2017.

Let’s start with the proposed cuts of $2.8 billion to universities and students – after $3.9 billion in earlier contributions to Budget repair.

If there’s just one moment that synthesises the sector’s unified and passionate advocacy against cuts, surely it was former Whyalla steelworker and UniSA student Chris Mills explaining the impact that cuts would inflict on a heavy industry town with an economy in transition.

In the eight months since the cuts were proposed, we have led a vast program of advocacy and communications – including the #stopunicuts content that was shared widely.

This included a series of powerful opinion pieces – here are just a sample of those that ran in The Advertiser, The Australian and the Australian Financial Review – and a large number of news stories on the impact the cuts would have on unis, future skills and Australia’s economic growth.

The lack of Senate support for the legislated cuts was made clear in mid-October, sparking media stories about the prospect of the Government seeking to make backdoor cuts.

Yet research showed cuts weren’t just unpopular with the Parliament – but also with the Australian people.

Australia’s ‘future fund’ for higher education – which has helped to build hugely-important facilities that help generate economic growth in regional Australia – also came under renewed threat. Once again, UA made the sector’s strong case to safeguard this driver of future jobs and growth.

In a year in which almost every sector shed further light on unacceptable behaviours right across our societies, Australian universities built on the comprehensive work program we launched in early 2016 to combat sexual assault and sexual harassment in university student communities.

The survey of our students that our universities – through UA – funded and asked the Australian Human Rights Commission to undertake, was released in August. With a commitment to further swift and strong action, UA released the sector’s 10-point action plan to guide our next steps.

And here is the powerful moment in which UA Chair Professor Margaret Gardner spoke directly to student survivors about what they had experienced at the hands of the person who sexually assaulted them.

In 2017, UA also launched the sector’s first comprehensive Indigenous strategy including ambitious targets that universities have set to boost their Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander student enrolments.
The strategy was developed in partnership with the National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Higher Education Consortium.

In a lyrical speech at the Parliament House launch, young Gumbaynggirr woman Lilly Brown – a University of Melbourne PhD student – spoke movingly about the thousands of generations of deep knowledge that Australia’s first people carry which connects to country.

In 2017, UA highlighted in our Startup Smarts publication the vast extent to which universities and their graduates are the driving force in Australia’s startup economy.

And in a stirring defence of evidence and expertise in a post-truth world, then UA Chair Professor Barney Glover highlighted the invaluable role of universities to safeguard public debate and facts.

And in a keynote to the Universities Australia Higher Education Conference 2017, the former US Ambassador to Australia the Hon Jeffrey Bleich spoke insightfully about what history can teach us as we navigate a turbulent global landscape and constant disruption.

And in a passionate masterclass on storytelling, iconic Australian actor Jack Thompson held the sector’s communicators spellbound at the Universities Australia Marketing Communications and Development conference.

In 2017, Australia’s earnings from international education hit a new record of $28 billion a year—and its crucial role in Australia’s soft diplomacy was recognised in the Foreign Policy White Paper.

UA spoke up – and the Government listened and acted in response – to avert changes to temporary work visa rules that would have impeded Australia’s ongoing ability to attract the best and brightest global university talent to work alongside our homegrown superstars.

Likewise, UA voiced members' concerns on the Australian Research Council’s Engagement and Impact exercise.

UA continued a sustained campaign to retain the $3.8 billion Education Investment Fund, the last source of Commonwealth support for higher education and research infrastructure. At the time of writing, the abolition Bill has not passed the parliament.

UA also marked the 10th anniversary of Universities Australia – and almost a century since its predecessor body was founded – with a short documentary: Keeping it Clever since 1920.

Graduate employability remained a top priority for our member universities, who do more than ever before to ensure their students are prepared for the world of work. And we provided regular media comment on how graduates continue to have a strong advantage in the job and salary markets – with nine in ten graduates in a full-time job three years after finishing study.

This year, UA also reinforced how crucial it is to have policy settings and smart public investments to ensure we can create new jobs to replace and extend those lost through technological disruption.

UA also played a crucial role to ensure the facts are understood on university attrition. And the higher education sector worked in close collaboration with Government to ensure new clear and consistent information on university entry requirements can be implemented.

All in all, it was a hectic and highly productive year.

We look forward to continuing to work on behalf of all universities in 2018.