21 December 2018

Catriona Jackson, Chief Executive, Universities Australia

Catriona heashotIt’s been another big year for the higher education sector.

Alas, 2018 finishes as it began — with a Government Budget update that inflicts new cuts on universities.

At the end of 2017, it was a $2.2 billion cut with a funding freeze on student places. This week, the Government has announced it will cut nearly $330 million from university research.

Throughout the year, Universities Australia has advocated energetically and strategically for universities and the local communities they serve by highlighting the loss of opportunity such cuts will cause.

In January, new analysis found the 2017 funding cuts would leave 10,000 student places unfunded in 2018 alone. These cuts will deepen again in 2019, and in 2020, if they remain in place.

By July, the ABC had obtained Government figures which showed this freeze meant some universities faced cuts of up to 15 per cent of their core funding by 2021— with regional and outer-metropolitan universities to be hardest hit.

Fewer places means fewer graduates — so access and equity were strong themes once again for UA in 2018. This was expressed eloquently in UA Chair Professor Margaret Gardner’s stirring speech as the centrepiece of UA’s Higher Education Conference.

In a plea to policymakers, Professor Gardner urged them: “Do not lock the door of opportunity…end this university funding freeze. And restore our nation’s investment in Australian students and Australia’s future.”

UA also made a strong pitch to business with our Clever Collaborations publication and campaign. In our advocacy, we highlighted that 16,000 companies are already partnering with universities — and these businesses get $4.50 for every dollar they invest in collaborative research. The campaign also gave firms a handy index of who to contact at each university to explore a possible collaboration.

This year, Australia reached an important milestone by attracting half a million international students. The success story of Australian international education — now our nation’s third largest export — was highlighted in UA’s #1inHalfaMillion campaign.

This initiative showcases the strong connections that international students forge with Australia, the great experiences they’ve had studying here - and the vast benefits international education has for Australian soft diplomacy and our economy.

In 2018, the campaign coincided with Australia’s earnings from international education hitting a new record of $32 billion a year — boosting Australia jobs and wages.

The year also saw the next steps in UA’s sector-wide comprehensive program to prevent and address sexual violence — Respect. Now. Always.

On the first anniversary of university-funded national student survey, UA released a new set of guidelines to help Australian universities strengthen their support for students and new principles to underpin any direct supervisory relationship between academics and their research students. We also noted that universities had taken more than 800 further major actions in the previous 12 months on these issues.

Our strong focus on students continued with the release of UA’s Student Finances Survey 2017. It found one in seven university students regularly go without food and other necessities. This rises to one in four Indigenous students and almost one in five students from the poorest quarter of Australian households.

There was better news for students and universities in the 2017 attrition data. It shows Australia’s universities have kept attrition rates stable despite a massive jump in enrolments over the past decade. New graduate data also showed the enduring earnings premium for younger Australians who pursue a university education. And nearly nine in ten graduates are in fulltime work three years after finishing their studies.

Mid-year, UA Chair Margaret Gardner farewelled Belinda Robinson after seven years as Chief Executive, and announced my appointment to the role.

UA also picked up the baton to ensure that awards to recognise outstanding teaching in Australia’s universities could continue. The latest winners will be announced in February next year.

In June this year, UA, the Australian Research Council and National Health Medical Research Council launched the 2018 Australian Code for the Responsible Conduct of Research. It was a major moment following years of work and will help to strengthen our already strong system of research integrity.

UA thanked the Government for listening carefully to our advocacy and making sensible changes to proposed laws on electoral disclosure — particularly a change that would mean that researchers would no longer be classified as ‘political campaigners’. There were also practical outcomes for universities and their reporting requirements under the new regulations for Australian charities and not-for-profits.

Labor’s promise to end the current university funding freeze and return to uncapped student places was also a win for the sector — and was welcomed and repeatedly reaffirmed by senior Opposition figures.

In August, with the change of Prime Minister, UA urged the new Prime Minister and his Cabinet to rethink university funding cuts and overturn the effective cap on student places.

September saw the Opposition pledge $174 million to student mentoring and support for university study in communities with low degree attainment rates.

In November, the entire UA plenary stood together to reaffirm the sector’s enduring commitment to freedom of expression and academic free speech. This reaffirmation preceded the Government’s announcement of a review to be led by Former High Court Chief Justice Robert French.

That same month, Labor recommitted to lifting spend on research and development to three per cent of GDP by the end of the next decade.

Parliament rose in December before a vote on a Government-proposed new tax on student numbers. UA expressed strong concerns about the principle underlying this proposal – making universities pay for the routine tasks of Government administration – and urged the Senate to reject the imposition of a levy on universities for every student they enrol with a student loan.

This year, it was also revealed that 11 humanities researchers had their research proposals recommended for Australian Research Council funding through expert review – only to have it vetoed by a decision of the former Education Minister. All Vice-Chancellors issued a strong joint statement from the UA Plenary in October to state categorically that there is no place for political interference in Australian research funding.

Finally, heading into 2019, Universities Australia will continue our newly-launched #UniResearchChangesLives campaign. It features everyday Australians talking about how their lives or the lives of their loved ones have been improved by university research breakthroughs.

Stay tuned for more inspiring stories next year.