PETER STEFANOVIC: Let’s go to Canberra and joining us is the chief executive of Universities Australia, Catriona Jackson. Catriona, thanks for your time. What is your submission to the Defence Strategic Review?
CATRIONA JACKSON: It’s time for us to start, in fact continue, a really serious discussion with Defence and with government broadly about how universities can help with the really big skills needs that Defence has. Defence, like all the other parts of the Australian economy, is suffering under a really heavy skills crisis. They’ve come to see us about it on multiple occasions at the highest levels. They need all sorts of people – from engineers to cybersecurity experts to AI people. Universities can help. It’s time for us to have a closer relationship so we can make sure we’re filling that need.
PETER STEFANOVIC: Why wouldn’t this have been acted upon sooner if they’ve already come to you needing more students?
CATRIONA JACKSON: This is a submission to the big Defence review that Angus Houston is running right now. This is part of a continuing conversation with government. We can see that all the talk is about the very substantial increase in capability funded by the government. What we need to make sure we don’t forget about is there’s no point having all that terrific up-to-date kit if we don’t have the people who can operate it, the people who can do all the other important work inside Defence – from nurses to engineers to IT professionals.
PETER STEFANOVIC: Okay, so essentially what this means is that there’ll be more courses available and more students to do it?
CATRIONA JACKSON: Peter, we hope so. We do need to have a serious conversation with government about making sure that universities have what they need to be able to provide these courses. Some of this stuff is really sophisticated and costs money. We will need to have a discussion with government about how we can do the best job possible for the nation but also for Defence. Also, continuing conversations with Defence, just about better plotting exactly what they need because all the skills they need are the skills that are in incredible demand from private industry, for defence forces around the world, so it’s really competitive.
PETER STEFANOVIC: Okay, so is another reason for this to address other shortages that you’re experiencing at the moment when it comes to international students?
CATRIONA JACKSON: We have for a considerable period, and back at the Jobs and Skills Summit not that long ago, called very loudly for us to take advantage of the terrific international graduates we already have in Australia a bit more than we currently do. Some countries overseas are doing a better job of this. A small number of international students stay once they’ve made that great big investment, we want a few more to stay on. These are the best and the brightest. We should be getting more of them to stay on – work in our hospitals, be specialists, work in cyber security, all sorts of areas.
PETER STEFANOVIC: Okay, so in this submission to the Defence Strategic Review, why limit it then to just allies, to Five Eyes partners, to AUKUS partners?
CATRIONA JACKSON: It’s a place to start the discussion, Peter. Obviously, that will be a decision for Defence, who they allow or who they make changes to their processes for. We need to be careful. It’s a changing environment in the current world, but that will be a decision for Defence.
PETER STEFANOVIC: What’s the capacity here for students, Catriona? How many extra could you facilitate?
CATRIONA JACKSON: Wow, that’s a big question, Peter. We can educate more, however we do at the moment have a capped system. The government just made an additional 20,000 places available and that’s great, but if we’re producing additional graduates, obviously we’ll have to have those funded by the Commonwealth. That’s a discussion we’ll have and we’re hoping to have in collaboration with Defence on these specific issues.
PETER STEFANOVIC: Okay. Would it be split up to those universities in the big cities or would regional universities have a role to play here as well?
CATRIONA JACKSON: There’s a role for all universities. There’s particularly a role for regional universities in research. They already do terrific research with Defence, they could do more if the conditions were right. It’s time to have a good sit down with Defence, a good sit down with government and work out how we can make sure universities are able to do their best to really boost the capability that government’s already invested in for the defence and security of the country and of Australians.
PETER STEFANOVIC: In your negotiations on this or your pitch for this so far, does there seem to be an appetite for it within government?
CATRIONA JACKSON: Absolutely. Defence has come to us on multiple occasions saying we need people, we need skilled people, can you help us?
PETER STEFANOVIC: So, what’s the problem? Why not get it going? It sounds like everyone’s on board.
CATRIONA JACKSON: Absolutely, and that’s terrific, Peter. There are some policy changes that will be needed. There are some recommendations, practical recommendations we’ve made in our submission to the Defence Strategic Review. That’s part of the point of having a review, get all the ideas on the table and then act on them. There’ll be some resources needed behind some of those from Defence, some resources from other parts of government, so those things will help.
PETER STEFANOVIC: Realistically, in terms of a time frame, how long would it take to get this going properly?
CATRIONA JACKSON: It’s already going in some senses, but really stepping it up is what we’re after here. It really depends on what government decides. We stand ready to supply more graduates to work with Defence, to work with government to make sure that we’re doing our best to supply those skilled graduates into those terrific jobs inside Defence.
PETER STEFANOVIC: Sounds like pretty good idea to me. Catriona Jackson, appreciate that, thank you. Talk to you soon.