15 December 2017

Professor Margaret Gardner Chair, Universities Australia

Margaret Gardner HSThis article is based broadly on thoughts shared by Professor Gardner for the program What Keeps Me Awake at Night, hosted by Kim Williams and first broadcast on ABC’s Radio National on 3 November 2017.

I could say that almost nothing keeps me awake at night because in truth I sleep very soundly.

But, perhaps, in the spirit of the program, I can say a number of things keep me awake at night.

Predominant among them is my concern for the future of universities in Australia and their ability to do the thing for which they were created.

Namely, to contribute to the public good, to educate our future citizens, and help with the discovery of new knowledge.

We are places that challenge the orthodoxy, that seek to address the questions for which we don’t yet have answers. We do that by relying on the notion of expertise and open scholarly debate, on evidence where evidence needs to be brought to bear.

But unfortunately, in some parts of our public debate, expertise can be devalued and sometimes less emphasis is placed on the value of open, rational, reasoned scholarly debate.

When people want to assert that every opinion should be equally valid, irrespective of whether it is supported or contradicted by evidence, that should concern us.

It is corrosive of the very thing we value. And, in the end, it becomes corrosive of the quality of the democracy and the public discussion that we need to promote.

We live in a society that has more access to education than it ever has had in the past.

Because of this, we should have a population that – more than ever before – understands the value of evidence, and a population that respects the boundaries of rational debate. And we do, to a significant extent. And yet, at the same time, we also have a proliferation of media and social media channels that promote faux solutions and flawed predictions on the big challenges we face.

And, sometimes, and I’m thinking especially of climate change debates now, those who say something is flawed because it is not backed by evidence risk being accused of attempting to shut down debate, when they seek simply to inform the debate with facts and evidence.

Many debates now are distracted from engaging with evidence, and from us thinking through in a reasoned way the implications of our actions.

And when it comes to higher education policy, there are often further contradictions.

At the same time as we value medical advances or engineering innovation and the important role of universities in the fourth industrial revolution as jobs and industries change, we’ve also seen another part of the debate.

This part of public discussion has included voices that question why we should invest in universities, or assert that fewer people should be going to universities – not more.

Recent public policy proposals have been based on ideas that we should cut funding, that we should get students to pay more – and yet we need to prepare for a world that is transforming at speed.

We know that there are whole new sets of skills and knowledge that are needed, that we have to fuel innovation in our economy, and that we have to be open to the world.

And yet some of these policy directions do not advance the goals to which we say we’re committed.

Even so, as Chair of Universities Australia, I see a legion of examples that do buoy optimism.

There are great discoveries and breakthroughs from Australian universities. Australia has very significant expertise in areas that people might not think of – including in fields as diverse as materials science, quantum computing, and medical research.

This expertise will help us change how we build cars, change the way we treat patients through wearable devices; potential revolutions in computing power, and advances in immunology and cancer therapeutics.

Australia has also been a big contributor to our understanding of the universe, playing an important part in the work to discover gravitational waves.

And a huge number of these advances are fuelled by Australian universities, from basic research right through to their application.

These are just a few examples and I could give hundreds more. These are so exciting. And there are many more advances in a vast array of fields.

Meanwhile, over the past decade, Australia has expanded access to university education for a record number of Australians from disadvantaged backgrounds. We now have tens of thousands more people from low-income, regional, rural and Indigenous backgrounds studying at university.

And, while vastly expanding access, attrition rates remain broadly where they were when a university education was limited to the privileged few. That’s a major achievement.

Since the caps on undergraduate university places were lifted in 2008, we have seen a 55 per cent lift in enrolments by students from low socio-economic households, 48 per cent growth for regional and rural students, 89 per cent growth for Indigenous students and 106 per cent growth for students with a disability.

And the quality of an Australian degree is acknowledged by employers right around the world – the excellence of an Australian university education is recognised globally.

That’s because there is a very high level of innovation in how we teach and how we support students. Our university system has put a lot of effort into ensuring that talent can succeed irrespective of background or circumstance.

So that helps to explain why I am an optimist rather than a pessimist about the future of Australia’s university system – and the great force for good that it is in the world.

We have strong cause for confidence. And that should help us all to sleep better at night.