29 March 2019

Professor Margaret Gardner AO, Chair, Universities Australia

Margaret Gardner HSEach morning, millions of Australians stir from sleep and reach for their smartphones.

Over the next few minutes and hours, we make sense of the day’s events.

Threaded through online feeds, physical newspapers, radio, and TV runs the informed analysis of Australian university scholars and researchers.

Their expertise helps us delve more comprehensively into the who, what, when, where, why and how of events in our world.

By the time you’re on your second cup of coffee for the day – which, incidentally, university research says is probably good for you - chances are you’ve already heard from at least half a dozen university experts.

In the past fortnight alone, there are numerous examples.

James Cook University economist Riccardo Welters spoke about maximising Townsville’s economic recovery in the wake of this month’s devastating floods.

University of Western Australia Indigenous Health Professor Patricia Dudgeon talked about combating the national emergency of Indigenous child suicide as the WA coroner handed down her report into the deaths of 13 Aboriginal children in recent years.

And as the nation marked the tenth anniversary of the devastating Black Saturday bushfires in Victoria, in which 173 people lost their lives, University of Wollongong bushfire researcher Dr Josh Whittaker and his colleagues told how research led to a change in the official advice – which is now to evacuate early on days of catastrophic fire risk.

Your ability to surf the news online is something of a credit to universities.

For universities were pioneers in the establishment of the internet in Australia.

It’s a story not told often enough.

Australia’s university leaders came together in the 1980s, as the Australian Vice-Chancellors' Committee – to build the national backbone of networked computing in collaboration with the CSIRO.

And so, the not-for-profit AARNET - Australia’s Academic and Research Network - was born; the founding architect, builder and operator of world-class high-speed internet infrastructure in our country.

If you will, university researchers are our public ‘brains trust’.

And this role is highly valued by Australians.

Just this month, respected public opinion trackers at JWS Research asked Australians who they trust to ensure facts and evidence are part of important public debates.

Is it doctors and medical professionals? Business leaders? Politicians? Church leaders? Union officials? Or perhaps – in this venue – journalists?


Rather, it is university researchers, scientists and experts who command most trust.

Eighteen times as many Australians said university experts were their single most trusted source of facts and evidence in public debates, as those who nominated politicians.

That’s particularly significant in an era when our collective trust in almost everyone and everything has been so heavily battered.

Australians respect university expertise.

That is heartening news for every researcher working hard to advance knowledge, to unravel the mysteries of human life and the universe, and to transform lives through their work.

Late last year, Universities Australia launched a powerful new video series to bring research stories to wider public attention.

Domestic violence survivor Helen, stroke survivor Kevin and cervical cancer survivor Lisa met Australian university researchers whose work has changed their lives – or the lives of people just like them.

I’m told Helen is watching this live broadcast today – so thank you again for being part of an important awareness campaign.

We brought Helen together with Associate Professor Becky Batagol, who worked on the Victorian Royal Commission into Family Violence.

Her work led politicians to streamline the court process for women and children fleeing family violence.

Instead of having to navigate two separate court processes with a violent ex-partner, and the trauma of two complex sets of legal proceedings, this work promises to make women and children safer.

In her video, Helen told us, unprompted:

“I think university research is absolutely critical.”

“It shines a light that demonstrates the need for change.”

“We were the clever country – we need to continue being the clever country.”

Thank you, Helen, for this powerful reminder.

The stories of Australians like Helen and Lisa and Kevin – whose health and future rely on university research breakthroughs – speak to trust, to respect and to impact.

They explain why Australians strongly oppose the cuts to university research funding made last December.

JWS Research found a strong majority of Australians do not support the cuts to university research funding.

They fear – rightly – such cuts will mean fewer university researchers able to work on life-changing breakthroughs.

This decision also harms our nation’s pipeline of future research talent.

Up to 500 fewer PhD scholarships will be funded this year alone. How will the next generation of brilliant researchers find their way to contribute?

This is a direct threat to our country’s future clever capabilities.

As President of Harvard Drew Gilpin Faust said in 2010, lamenting cuts to higher education funding elsewhere:

“We are caught in the paradox of celebrating the global knowledge economy and simultaneously undermining its foundations.”

University education and research are also crucial to the health of democracies and nations.

When Nobel laureate and Professor of Economics Joseph Stiglitz graced this stage last November, he made a powerful and related point.

The growth in the wealth of nations over the past two and a half centuries, he argued, was largely due to advances in two broad fields.

The first was science and technology, and the second, social organisation – the rule of law, and the development of democracies with sophisticated systems of checks and balances.

But, warned Stiglitz, “this requires systems of truth telling, of ascertaining, of discovering what the truth is, verifying the truth”.

He feared that demagogue dictators around the globe are systematically trying to destroy truth-telling institutions – the independent media, the judiciary, and universities.

For expertise grounds us in what is known, proven and verifiable. It helps us decipher complex information.

This is true for whole societies, and for individual students.

A great university education imparts not just the foundational knowledge and skills particular to a chosen discipline or profession, but a broader and more profound set of skills for life.

Logic. Reasoning. Curiosity. Creativity.

The skills to analyse, decipher and interpret.

An ability to develop cogent arguments, build evidence, and to test and verify information.

In short, the skills of clear thinking for a clever nation.

As the automatable and the autonomous take over more of the routine tasks within our jobs, humans will need new roles in employment and work.

Work that requires higher order skills of thinking, insatiable curiosity, creativity and an ability to read other human beings.

Precisely the skills a great university education fosters.

Such education is informed by robust research and scholarship. Universities are unique educational institutions because of this nexus.

Research-informed teaching places students on the frontiers of new knowledge. It is not a question of parsing established texts. Along with their teachers, they confront the new.

How else can we understand the unpredictable now – and confront the more unknowable future?

This is why we need our universities in Australia – great universities.

And it is why public policy matters for the future shape and condition of our Australian universities.

Policy matters for everyone who needs a post-school education.

Policy shapes the path of our careers and lives.

And policy matters to how well our universities can contribute to our economic and civic future.

In a curious way, the many policy reviews announced in recent times are a recognition that policy matters: enquiries into the Australian qualifications framework, the categories for higher education providers, performance funding, Defence Trade Controls, research and innovation funding. The list is long.

All these enquiries seek to define or refine the operations of the contemporary university.

They matter not only for their immediate subjects, but also for how they affect what a university can and should be.

The late Clark Kerr, a President (and architect) of the University of California system, outlined the impact of the teaching and research university as we have come to know it.

He noted in “The Uses of the University” – “the university’s invisible product, knowledge, may be the most powerful single element in our culture” (2001:xii) because new knowledge was and is the most important engine for economic and social growth.

Kerr’s statement “…the university has become a prime instrument of national purpose…” (2001:66) is based in lived experience.

As Connell notes in “The Good University” – “the modern teaching-and-research university has, in a sense, conquered the world” (2019:7).

And while there are many different types of university and university systems, the Australian university system is defined and dominated by the teaching-and-research university.

In Australia, the title “university’ is legislatively tied to this nexus of research and teaching. As Glyn Davis argues in “The Australian Idea of a University” (2017), our universities cleave to a handful of defining features, some common and others with an Antipodean twist.

Ours are: public institutions; self-governing; focussed on professional courses; meritocratic; and strongly tied by local students to their community.

Australian universities exhibit the universalism (and the internationalism) that is the core of a university, but are also, generally, large (by international standards), comprehensive, secular, and, in the domestic sense, city or community-based institutions.

So, while changes of policy may affect our universities differentially, even small changes have consequences across the system.

Policy matters a great deal for all Australia’s universities.

It is important those writing and reviewing policy understand what is at stake.

In complex sectors such as higher education, policy debates may appear arcane: arguments about detailed rules may seem of limited interest to others.

Yet the currents of policy debate buffet our universities.

There is more at stake than funding or culture wars.

The soul and purpose of a university is in the balance.

Good policy allows the system to flourish for the benefit of all.

Poor policy choices constrain the benefits and have the potential to diminish the essence of university life – the creation and dissemination of new knowledge.

At the heart of the university, and its impact, is student access and a student’s potential for success.

Universities change lives for the better. Often profoundly so.

So many Australians have triumphed over the odds just to get into university. The results enrich their lives, and their family’s lives, forever.

That’s why we continue to highlight the opportunity cost – and the cost to opportunity – of university funding cuts.

In late 2017, another $2.1 billion of cuts were made to funding for student places at Australia’s universities.

Again, the public strongly opposes these cuts.

Two-thirds of Australians believe that cutting funds for student places at universities is the wrong decision for Australia’s future.

Many Australians worry deeply and rightly such cuts are profoundly unfair to Australians from disadvantaged backgrounds, from regional Australia, and to future students.

A little over a decade ago, Professor Denise Bradley, former Vice-Chancellor of the University of South Australia, led a major review for the Australian Government.

It argued the nation should set a goal for university attainment - for two reasons.

First was to match university attainment levels to the needs of our future labour market given the growing demand for skilled graduates.

And second was to ensure equity in higher education for Australians of all backgrounds.

Australia adopted a national target: we would strive for 40 per cent of Australians aged 25 to 34 to have a university education.

We have made big gains on both equity and attainment over the past decade.

But some regions and parts of Australia still lag.

Only 28 per cent of young Queenslanders – those aged 25 to 34 – had a university degree by 2016.

In Tasmania, it was 24.5 per cent.

In South Australia, and in Western Australia, it was just over 30 per cent.

Within States, opportunity is also uneven.

In Melbourne, university attainment is around 45 per cent – in Mildura, it is just 17.3%.

This is a powerful reminder of why we must restore the demand-driven system of uncapped student places at our universities across the nation, to help close these gaps in opportunity.

And we need to support our students better during difficult years of study.

The Universities Australia Student Finances Survey last August found the median annual income for full-time domestic undergraduate students is well below the poverty line at $18,300.

One in seven university students say they regularly go without food and other necessities because they cannot afford them, with students from poorer backgrounds, Indigenous and regional students worst affected.

Such students need greater support to pay the bills while studying.

This is a task not only for universities, but for our whole community. It is a funding and policy challenge.

We must make opportunity real for all the Australians who will need a university education for our future.

Universities don’t just equip students with skills for learning, life and leadership.

We help prepare students for the careers that beckon after graduation.

This is about far more than making them knowledgeable in their chosen field.

Subject matter expertise and a strong grasp of conceptual material are fundamental.

But success in a workplace relies on more than content knowledge.

It also hinges on mastering broader skills and competencies.

Skills such as interacting with patients, managing a classroom as you stand in front of a rowdy group of schoolchildren, or learning how to work with clients on major engineering or town planning projects.

And this is why Australian universities offer a vast array of opportunities for students to gain workplace skills and experience before they graduate.

New data collected by Universities Australia, with support from the Australian Government, tells this story.

In 2017, almost half a million students at Australia’s universities completed a formal work placement, internship or career preparation activity as part of their degree.

This is very large number – and a noteworthy one.

This strong career preparation is the focus of our latest Universities Australia publication – Career Ready Graduates – which I am delighted to launch here today.

‘Career Ready Graduates’ features stories of students and experiences they gained through engagement with business, community and the professions.

Teaching students from UNSW do practical placements at a local school in Coonabarabran, seven hours drive from Sydney, inspiring them to take up teaching roles in the regions.

Engineering students from Charles Sturt University work with industry to build the Nepean River Bridge in Penrith.

And Flinders University politics students intern in the US Congress and return home with a letter of recommendation to add to their resume.

There are countless other examples – around half a million – of students learning, testing and starting their future careers supported by universities linked to future workplaces.

A defining element that allows Australia’s universities to work across society, linking research and education, engagement and student success is their autonomy. Their independence.

The protection of the autonomy of our universities to pursue important and challenging research, and to design the subjects and degrees to prepare students for their future lives, is vital.

The soul of the university depends on its autonomy – just as much as its positive impact relies on its student access and success.

On campus, students join with staff in a community where challenging and contentious ideas can be dissected and debated.

They learn the art of argument and respectful disagreement, even when sometimes interlaced with noisy protest in practice. Democracy is lively.

In the marketplace of ideas, we should always be wary of those trying to sell us straw men. This is the playbook of critics who attack our nation’s universities with a false charge of being insufficiently committed to freedom of expression.

Last October, our nation’s Vice-Chancellors issued a joint statement reaffirming our enduring commitment to academic freedom and freedom of expression on our campuses.

Between them, our universities have some 100 policies, codes and agreements that uphold academic freedom and freedom of expression. The culture of freedom of research, teaching and expression is strongly defended.

A great university education stresses careful examination of facts and opinion, and encourages arguments grounded in evidence.

The late American Senator, counsellor to two Presidents - Kennedy and Nixon, Daniel Patrick Moynihan, was not one to mince words.

He said: "You are entitled to your own opinion, but not your own set of facts."

We will continue to nurture and promote these traditions – central to the autonomy of Australian universities.

Moynihan also saw a clear and profound link between thriving communities and universities.

"If you want to build a great city, create a great university and wait 200 years," he observed.

In Australia, we’re fast learners. We have achieved great universities and great cities rather more quickly.

Across the nation, Australia’s universities play a profoundly important role in our civic life.

Agricultural research by the University of New England helps farming communities. Flood mitigation research by Southern Cross University, makes it deeply connected to the communities it serves.

Indeed, universities often are anchor institutions in our communities connecting people, businesses, organisations, activities and knowledge.

They can breathe life back into communities and economies battered by the ravages of economic and technological change.

A report by the University Partnerships Program Foundation’s Civic University Commission, published in the United Kingdom just last week, highlighted the role of universities as institutions for civic good.

It urged universities to widen participation – including for mature-age students; engage strongly with local community groups and businesses; understand local priorities and contribute to the cultural strength of communities.

These lessons are important in Australia also.

Our universities are of and for our communities.

This matters in a nation in which – unlike in the UK or the US – the vast majority of students go to university in their home city or region.

This foundation forges strong connection.

The vibrancy of many Australian cities hinges in no small part on the education and research of the many universities in their midst.

Regional centres find in their university one of their largest institutions – and a vibrant source of ideas, culture, enterprise and engagement.

Yet Australia’s universities are both global and local – simultaneously working to combat dengue fever in Vietnam, and helping local youth sporting organisations in Clayton.

The university role is innately civic, whether global or local.

Students take their new knowledge back to their home countries, or stay on to work in their local community.

University research is deployed to provide clean water in our neighbouring countries – or to help nurture the health of Australian river systems.

And this knowledge is not only a powerful economic force - but also key to the civic life of our communities.

We cannot meet future needs, global and local, for graduates without policy settings that enable student access and student success.

We cannot develop high quality graduates ready for innovative careers without research that creates new knowledge. This research-teaching nexus is the foundation to create and disseminate the next generation of ideas.

New knowledge that fuels our economic and social growth flourishes when the independence and autonomy of our universities is protected.

Australian universities are powerful institutions for the public good.

They are there for all of us.

And that is why they are so important to Australia – and its future.

This article is based on a speech Professor Margaret Gardner gave to the National Press Club of Australia on 27 February 2019.