Similar to a growing number of Australians, Melissa Schenck thought she would never have the security of a career. Across two decades, she went from one casual job to the next while rearing five children.
Schenck now is enrolled in a social work degree at the University of South Australia’s Whyalla campus — the first in her family to study at university.
It’s her path to a more secure future for her family.
Almost half a continent away, Karlie Noon is a young Kamilaroi woman who grew up near Tamworth. She missed most of primary school, but has ended up being the first in her family to go to university, despite having a low Australian Tertiary Admission Rank.
Noon went on to be the first indigenous woman to gain a double degree in maths and science in NSW when she graduated from the University of Newcastle. She is now a masters student and researcher in astronomy and astrophysics at the Australian National University.
This is Australian talent being unearthed and unleashed — and there are thousands more stories like these on campuses right around Australia.
Schenck and Noon are top of mind as I step into the role of chief executive of Universities Australia. I want their stories repeated, every day. They are among the tens of thousands of people given the opportunity of a higher education since Australia uncapped university places from 2009.
But they are also the kind of people who could miss out following the present government’s funding freeze, cutting $2.1 billion from universities.
To be clear, the freeze reduces the number of commonwealth-supported places a university can offer each year from now on.
Every university around the nation has fewer funded places, regardless of whether you are in an area of significant population growth or serious skills shortage.
Uncapped university places — the demand-driven system — have opened the doors to 50,000 more people from poorer backgrounds and allowed them to get a university education.
Since 2009, the number of regional and rural students has increased by 48 per cent, while the number of indigenous students has risen by 89 per cent.
Students with a disability are up by 106 per cent.
That’s a significant achievement and one we should celebrate. But there’s still a long way to go.
Those living in regional Australia are half as likely to have a university degree as their city counterparts.
Take the yawning gulf in opportunity when you compare northern Sydney with the Hunter Valley. More than 60 per cent of young people in the north of Sydney have a university qualification, but just two hours up the road it’s only 14 per cent.
We’re not saying every Australian should go to university. But everyone with the talent and interest should have the opportunity to go, and that’s what an uncapped system has provided.
This is not just about fairness for individuals. Our economy and prosperity depend on the skills and benefits gained from university study.
We know the workplace is changing, and fast. The rise of artificial intelligence and automation is already reshaping nearly every industry and, with it, nearly every job. In the US, 99 per cent of jobs created since the global financial crisis have required a tertiary education.
In Australia, the government predicts that more than 90 per cent of the 948,000 new jobs expected to be created by 2022 will require a post-school qualification. Each additional graduate in the economy brings $471,000 extra to Australia’s gross domestic product and $152,000 to the government’s tax take across 20 years.
At a La Trobe University alumni breakfast last year, I heard directly from former trade minister Andrew Robb about what that opportunity meant.
As one of nine kids, reared in regional Victoria, he was a solid C student at school and didn’t have wide-ranging ambitions. But he was determined to prove that kids from regional backgrounds could do anything.
He started his university study in economics. He got the bug — the bug of thinking critically about complex issues, looking at them from every angle, and the excitement of working with great teachers to crack a problem open.
He experienced the intense satisfaction when you exceed your own expectations, when you finally know you are just as capable as the students sitting either side of you.
University gave him “the confidence, the critical mind, the self-esteem” that drove him on to front the National Farmers Federation, to serve as Liberal Party federal director and, later, in an act of great courage, to admit and document publicly the depression that had dogged him from the age of 12.
When he went to university, Robb was one of a far smaller group of Australians able to take up the transformative opportunity.
Fast-forward several decades. Schenck and Noon remind us that this same opportunity has been extended to tens of thousands more Australians.
We should never lose sight of the powerful personal stories made possible by opening up the nation’s university system. It will remain my focus in my new role.
Catriona Jackson is chief executive-designate of Universities Australia.
This article was originally published in The Australian on 13 June 2018.