Recording date: Thursday 1 September 2022
The peak body representing universities is attending the Jobs and Skills Summit. Universities Australia Chief Executive Catriona Jackson has told ABC Radio’s Anna Pykett she wants to see support for the tertiary education sector prioritised to help drive up skilled labour in the years ahead.
Universities believe really deeply in the power of bringing the best minds around the toughest problems. And that is exactly what the Jobs and Skills Summit is about, getting all the people in the room to really work collectively to try and sort out how we fix our immediate problem – a real jobs and skills crisis – but also look to the future to make sure we are not in this position again.
Universities bring a range of really practical solutions to the table. We want to be able to increase the number of those terrific international graduates who stay in Australia. A large number of them come here to study, but only 16 per cent stay. We want a few more of those students to stay and use their Australian education in Australia.
We also want to work very hard on the domestic front and make sure that we are offering a university degree to every Australian who wants to be able to do one. But also, the ability to upskill and retrain, so that when they get to 35 and they find they need some more skills in a particular area, they can go back to university, do a microcredential, re-enter the workforce or go back to their previous job – skilled up and really ready to go.
You mentioned international students and that they have had a rough time in the last few years because of COVID-19. Are there any specific policy changes you’d like to see come out of this summit which alleviates some of these pressures?
For international students, we’ve had really good discussions with government about just smoothing the visa process so it’s a little bit easier for those international students who’ve made a very serious commitment to Australia, a serious investment in Australia, for a few more of them to stay. As I said, only about 16 per cent stay.
In other countries, a much bigger portion of those terrifically bright overseas students stay on in country. We’d like a few more per cent than 16 to stay – going into engineering jobs, medical jobs, and all sorts of other jobs. And we can do that via some fairly simple tweaks in the visa settings. We’ve had good response from government in relation to that.
Is it just barriers to visas that are preventing these students from going back to different countries once they’ve completed their studies?
Changes to the visa system in Australia will go a very long way to encouraging a few more of those students to stay on. The system we have at the moment is just not fit for purpose. It’s been cobbled together over the years. It’s antiquated. A few changes here and there will just make it more likely that more of those students will stay here and use their education here.
In the years ahead, how critical do you think Australian research will be in finding solutions to the challenges Australia faces? I’m thinking security, climate change and wellbeing.
Every single big challenge that we face, universities are grappling with inside of universities and outside with industry right now. As you say, climate change, energy transition, geopolitical disruption, pandemics and how we combat them – every single one of the big challenges humanity faces and Australians face, are being grappled with inside universities and through partnerships.
We want to do more and better at that. It’s fundamental that the investment in universities and the investment from government into universities, but also from industry, is fit for purpose, is up to the mark and runs in line with OECD averages so that we can make sure we hold our really competitive place.
Earlier this week, the Victorian State Government announced that it would provide free university and specialist training for thousands of nurses and midwives. Is this a move you’d like to see replicated in other states and perhaps other professions as well, like maybe teaching?
It’s really clear that we have very significant shortages, both in the health workforce, but also in the teaching workforce. And we have some very solid practical suggestions for how we deal with those. For a start, with health, the one thing that’s absolutely fundamental is that we have more clinical places. Universities can educate as many doctors, nurses, paramedics as you like, but we can’t get them into the workforce, onto the ward floor, or into aged care facilities, unless they have a clinical placement.
At the moment, we don’t have enough. We need as a society, both government, universities, and health providers together, to think really constructively about how we can broaden that range of clinical placements so we can get those terrific workers actually out into the field where they’re doing the job.
Catriona, finally, rising cost of living pressures are nothing new. We’ve been talking about them on ABC Radio for months and months. High tuition fees aren’t helping. In the United States, President Joe Biden promised to wipe 10,000 USD in student debts for those who earn less than 125,000 USD which is roughly around 180,000 AUD a year. Would you like to see a similar move replicated here?
We are always alive and alert to financial pressures on students. And we look forward to a process of serious discussion with the government, which will happen later this year, around those settings. But at the same time, we have the income contingent loan system here. Those financial barriers are significantly lower in Australia than they would be otherwise.
What is on the table for those big discussions later this year, is just how those fundings flow and how much pressure there is on the students – whether the appropriate policy and funding settings are in place – to make sure that we can give every Australian who wants it the best chance to have a world class education and really make the most of their life and their contribution to the Australian country.
Universities Australia’s Chief Executive Catriona Jackson there speaking with ABC Radio’s Anna Pykett. So, the priorities there, according to Universities Australia, is to see support for the tertiary education sector prioritised to help drive skilled labour in the years ahead. Of course, a very tough time for the tertiary education sector losing all those international students for one and trying to get back on its feet after a couple of tough years due to the pandemic. But this all comes as the highly anticipated Jobs and Skills Summit gets underway in Canberra and more than 100 union, business and government representatives are meeting in Canberra to discuss solutions to the workforce and Australia’s economic challenges. It began this morning, launched by the Prime Minister Anthony Albanese, and will continue for the next few days.