UA Logo.jpgMedia Release Header.png

Universities are essential to economic transition

Address to the FUTUREPROOF 2016 conference

16 May 2016

Professor Barney Glover

Chair, Universities Australia

Vice-Chancellor and President, Western Sydney University

Ladies and gentlemen, thank you for being here today and for being part of this event about the essential role of universities in shaping Australia's future.

As you are acutely aware, we are in the early stages of a marathon sprint to a federal election. So, firstly, congratulations to Campus Review and the organisers of this event on your exquisite sense of timing.

I must say we are in a very different place than we were three years ago.

During the 2013 election campaign, I think it is fair to say that neither side of politics made higher education, nor for that matter research, a particularly prominent issue. Each of them went to that poll with relatively modest detail in their policy platforms.

And yet, during the last parliamentary term, we witnessed perhaps the greatest divergence for quite some time in the views of the two major parties on their policy objectives for higher education.

Having withdrawn their plans for the full deregulation of student fees in the recent Budget, the Coalition has now floated a series of policy options for consultation. However, cuts of $2.5 billion remain in the Budget papers from 2018 onwards.

Labor, meanwhile, is heading to this election with the most detailed higher education policy framework produced by an Opposition in quite a while. Despite the detail, there are still elements of their position that warrant discussion. The sector well remembers that Labor in Government also made sizeable cuts. Their current policy, however, pledges an increase on current funding levels.

Whatever the election outcome, Universities Australia will test proposed shifts from current policy settings against the major policy statement we launched late last year - Keep It Clever. It called for sustainable and sustained public investment in universities, measures to lift industry-research collaboration, and policies that will enable us to help Australia meet the workforce needs of the future.

It is on the theme of economic transition where the views of both major parties converge; an idea that has dominated the political landscape in recent times.

So what does that economic transition require? Let's think about the challenge of how we move from an economy heavily reliant on mining and construction to one in which skills and knowledge become our most precious commodities. That task simply cannot be achieved without a strong university sector; one that produces a highly skilled workforce and generates new jobs and new industries to replace the ones that are disappearing.

And yet, how clearly does the Australian public see that direct connection between universities and prosperity? In people's busy lives, they don't always join those dots.

That is why today we are launching a new phase of our public awareness campaign, Keep it Clever.

For the past two years, Australia's universities have embarked on a non-partisan awareness-raising project to highlight the risks for Australia if we do not keep our university sector strong. It will build on the over three million people who heard or viewed the previous campaign.

In this new phase, we will highlight the integral role of universities in the creation of new jobs and industries - by telling the stories of graduates and research breakthroughs that save lives, create new businesses, and generate economic growth for Australia.

This may be a campaign in an election, but it is not an election campaign. It is not about influencing voter behaviours.

Rather, we want to remind all Australians - and all candidates and political parties - of the enormous contribution that universities make to almost every aspect of Australia's economic and social wellbeing.

Many Australians would know that Australia's university researchers and graduates were responsible for inventions such as the Cochlear implant, and that they contributed to the development of Wifi at CSIRO, the realisation of the ground-breaking cervical cancer vaccine, Gardasil and many others.

But what may not be so top of mind is how a high-quality university system touches their lives in so many other ways. The highly-skilled teachers in their child's primary school classroom? Educated at a university. The doctor who treats their elderly parent? Educated at a university. The engineer who designed the bridge they drive over safely every day. The forensic scientist who helps solve crimes and makes their communities safer. The IT programmers who engineered the technology in their smartphone. The people who designed banking security systems to keep their money safe. The people who came up with GPS, who keep planes in the sky, and the plant scientists who are developing more drought-resistant crops. All university educated.

In national newspaper advertising, starting from today, UA's campaign underscores that universities are essential for Australia's potential to take off. It does so because universities are absolutely essential to economic transition, to launch new ideas into the world, and to develop innovation in industry. TV and digital advertisements will follow.

The campaign features bright LED-lit balloons, which represent the scores of bright ideas that universities and our graduates have launched, growing the economy and creating a brighter future for all Australians. These bright ideas emanating from the nation's universities and university graduates are vital to create new jobs, new technologies, and new industries. Many of them also save lives, lift wellbeing, and enrich our community. A strong university sector is essential to give rise to those bright ideas, maximise their potential, and create benefits for all Australians.

In the first advertisements released today, we highlight the essential role of universities. And in coming months, we will roll-out a series of specific examples of how university research or university graduates are critical to enabling economic transition. The stories of people like Jane Cay, a commerce graduate who went back to her hometown of Cooma to found an online business that created more than 100 new jobs in regional Australia.

We need to highlight these stories, because the story of work and career in Australia is changing. According to last year's, 'New Work Order' report by the Foundation for Young Australians, "70 per cent of young Australians currently enter the workforce in jobs that will be radically affected by automation." Seventy per cent.

Over the next 10-15 years alone, the Foundation estimates that 40 per cent of existing jobs will disappear.

For people entering the workforce now, the notion of a linear career narrative or even steady progression is over. Young people are expected to have an average of 17 different occupations over the course of their working lives. Seventeen different occupations.

Universities will be even more essential to help people reskill, upskill and reinvent their jobs.

Disruption is not a distant rumble. It is upon us.

Although no one can be completely 'future proofed' from the negative aspects of unforeseen and seismic change, Australia's universities provide our students with the critical thinking, problem solving skills, knowledge and adaptability to help them, not only cope with such change, but lead and excel.

And it is not only our graduates who benefit.

Modelling by economic consultants Cadence Economics highlights the role of universities in increasing the number of jobs and lifting the wages and living standards of Australians and the Australian economy overall.

It shows that for every thousand university graduates who enter the Australian workforce, 120 new jobs are created for people without university degrees.

The analysis also finds that having more graduates in the economy lifts the wages of workers who do not have degrees, by $655 a year or $12.60 a week.

The centrality of universities to the success of the broader economy is clear. This is a large part of the rationale we present in our Keep it Clever policy statement which will be front and centre in our new campaign.

Strangely enough for a statement produced by Australia's universities, Keep it Clever is not just about universities. To use the Budget parlance, it's a plan; a plan to grow, sustain and enrich the much talked about 'knowledge economy'.

Over coming weeks we will see an incredible volume and intensity in political debate and positioning around policy platforms on many issues. For the reasons I've stated, we see higher education and research as headline, top tier issues.

Our Keep it Clever policy statement will continue to be the foundation of our advocacy to all political parties before and after this election. We want to see as much of it as possible reflected in the final policies and decisions of both major parties.

Australia simply cannot achieve an economic transition without a strong university sector.

The highly dynamic and far reaching nature of parliamentary debate on higher education over the past three years alone indicates just how important our universities are in the political and, indeed, public consciousness. It would seem natural in such a context - particularly when we are talking about an 'ideas boom' - that it would be a headline consideration throughout the campaign. At least so far, it is not.

Just over a week ago, the Western Sydney Business Chamber, Pricewaterhouse Coopers and Western Sydney University hosted a post-Budget debate at the Waterview restaurant, Olympic Park, between the Government's Cabinet Secretary, Senator Arthur Sinodinos and Shadow Treasurer, Chris Bowen.

Despite their divergent views on the best strategies to drive economic transition, they both agreed on the centrality of innovation; and the need for Australia to build a knowledge economy. They also agreed that higher education wouldn't appear as a top-tier issue in the campaign. That may well be so. And yet in recent years, there have been times when we have seen Australians take a keen interest in future directions in higher education. So there is something of a mismatch.

We saw in the public reaction to the higher education policy changes first announced in 2014 just how deeply feelings run on these issues. Certainly, fee sensitivity played a part, but it was evident through the way community views were expressed that the electorate have a reasonably clear idea of what level of private investment they see as a reasonable reflection of career prospects.

And, to its credit, I think the community's understanding of the value of higher education extends well beyond personal, return-on-investment considerations. The reform package also made people examine the public good a public investment in education can bring, not just in terms of the social and essential services universities enable but also their important role as cultural, intellectual and social institutions. This understanding, I suspect, has been evident again in the electorate's enthusiasm for the 'innovation' agendas of both the Coalition and Labor. Quite simply, they 'get it'.

UA's policy statement speaks to the concerns expressed by the electorate and, indeed the priorities espoused by our political representatives. And to give additional weight to those priorities, we are able to demonstrate the integral role of universities in generating Australia's future and current prosperity. Analysis by Deloitte Access Economics shows the following:

  1. in 2013 Australia's universities contributed $25 billion in direct benefit to the economy;
  2. the value of the stock of knowledge generated the following year by Australia's university research is estimated at $160 billion - more than 10 per cent of GDP;
  3. the value of university education added an estimated $140 billion to the economy in 2014; and
  4. in the same year, our universities educated almost 1.3 million Australian and international students, directly employing more than 120,000 fulltime equivalent staff.

Perhaps most significantly given the importance of maintaining international competitiveness, in 2015 international education earned $19 billion in export income, making it Australia's third biggest export industry and the biggest in the services sector.

These pronounced disruptions, these large-scale social and economic shifts require, more than ever, a sustained investment in the bedrock on which our success as innovators will depend, our universities.

We will continue to make the case for a university system that is accessible to all, regardless of socio economic background, gender, ethnicity, disability or religion. We will advocate for a system that is financially sustainable to students and taxpayers, a system that is high quality, accountable and sufficiently well-resourced to deliver world-standard teaching and research.

We will do this simply because Australia cannot afford not to do it.

We welcome consultation with all political representatives on how best to achieve these goals so that universities are able to drive the ideas, innovation and education required to maintain international competitiveness and lift economic growth.

We've seen in the Government's implementation of several of the major recommendations of the Watt Review that policy evolution is possible. Changes to block grants and the infusion of the National Innovation and Science Agenda with structures to facilitate deeper collaboration with industry are further indications of the possibilities of progressive reform, if targeted at the right areas, and if properly resourced.

In contrast, other reforms and adjustments rationalised as 'savings' in the context of the Budget are impossible to accept, namely the $2.5 billion in cuts I mentioned at the outset of today's address.

The cut of $152 million from the Higher Education Participation and Partnerships (HEPP) programme was also disappointing for an initiative that is so critical in improving access to higher education for people from disadvantaged and marginalised backgrounds. As was the abolition of the Office for Learning and Teaching, a program that drove innovation and excellence in teaching, which is vital to student retention and satisfaction.

Fortunately, the Budget also included some positive announcements for higher education; such as the reversal of the efficiency dividend, originally applied in 2014, on programs where legislation has not been passed. The allocation of $10 million for the Tertiary Education Quality and Standards Agency (TEQSA) and $8 million to improve the Quality Indicators for Learning and Teaching (QILT) website were welcome additions in the context of UA's focus on quality.

Through the course of my address, I trust that I have made the case for sustained investment in higher education. We cannot afford to wait any longer. Australia's universities rate relatively highly by international standards but that standing is not to be taken for granted; particularly not when competitor nations are investing at a far greater scale and rate than we are in this critically important economic driver.

In closing, may I thank all of you for being here today and for your contributions to a strong university sector in this country. Like us, you know a strong university sector is essential to give rise to even more of those bright ideas, maximise their potential, and create benefits for all Australians.

- ends -

Universities Australia Media Contacts

Misha Schubert
02 6285 8133
Mobile: 0421 612 351

Bella Counihan
Ph: 02 6285 8123
Mobile: 0419 212 219 

For all the latest from and about Australia's universities visit

Follow us on Twitter @uniaus