ROS CHILDS: The peak body for Australian universities says the sector is ready to work closely with the country’s Defence Force to help alleviate its skills shortage. It’s estimated the ADF could be short up to 30,000 cybersecurity workers within the next four years and it’s also facing a lack of engineers and intelligence officers. Catriona Jackson is the head of Universities Australia, and she joins us now. Hi, there. Was this a proposal, Catriona, that came from you or were you approached by the ADF?
CATRIONA JACKSON: We’ve been having lots of discussions with Defence and the ADF in relation to this proposal. It’s one of those things that comes about through good, thorough discussions. Like the rest of the community, the Defence Force is suffering from really serious skill shortages, and universities are here to help.
ROS CHILDS: We mentioned a couple of figures in the introduction there. Is the biggest skills gap in cybersecurity?
CATRIONA JACKSON: We all know that cybersecurity is such an enormous issue for every Australian. Who hasn’t been hacked or phished or one of those terrible words? Cyber is a big gap, but it’s not just STEM disciplines. It is IT, it is AI, it’s all sorts of things like that, including engineering, but also humanities and social sciences. Defence is enormous and it has the requirement for really skilled workers in a huge range of disciplines. There’s been an enormous increased investment from government. We’ve got to make sure that that capability is underpinned by the people who make it work, not just the fancy, very high-tech kit, but the people who will make all that stuff work and make Defence work to keep us all safe.
ROS CHILDS: The shortages, then, are in the support or admin sectors, rather than in the forces themselves?
CATRIONA JACKSON: There are shortages everywhere, as there are in every industry and not just here, but overseas. Those really specialised jobs which really will keep us safe, cyber at the top of that list, are in demand, not just here, but all over the world. What we’re seeing right now is incredible competition for qualified people. We’ve got to stay in the race. Our competitors are outstripping us a little bit here, so it’s time to really get on with it.
ROS CHILDS: Okay, so what would be the incentives then for uni students to go into the Defence Force?
CATRIONA JACKSON: There’s an education piece from Defence to make sure that students understand the broad range of careers, but also there’s a whole bunch of things we can do. Some additional incentives are a decision for Defence, but some additional incentives are scholarships. We want a proper discussion to really sit down and nut out the sorts of needs Defence has, so that we can sit down with policy makers and plot out how we make sure that universities can play the best role here and really have the capability to be pumping those people into the system everywhere, but specifically Defence.
ROS CHILDS: Okay, so you’re implying that there aren’t enough graduates right now coming through the system to fill skills shortages, not just in Defence, but in civilian sectors as well.
CATRIONA JACKSON: We know that the world has changed. We know that 90 per cent of people by 2030 will need a post-school qualification. We need more university education, not less, in an increasingly knowledge-intensive world. So, Ros, that goes for pretty much everything, including Defence.
ROS CHILDS: And what role could international students play in plugging the skills gap in Defence, Catriona?
CATRIONA JACKSON: We’ve been arguing for a long time that we would like a few more of those highly qualified international graduates to stay here in Australia and ply their trade here – be it in nursing, in doctoring, in IT, in engineering, in anything in the humanities and social sciences. That goes for the whole community. Certainly, some more of those international candidates could play a real role in Defence. Defence will have to change their criteria and think about it very carefully. Obviously, they’d be selecting those students very carefully. That’s a decision for Defence, but one we’ve put on the table for conversation.
ROS CHILDS: How quickly do you think things might change then?
CATRIONA JACKSON: This is a big review headed by Angus Houston. We’ve not just started the conversation now, we’ve had the conversation going at the highest levels of Defence for some time now. We’re hoping that we’ll see some change quickly, but those decisions are decisions for government and Defence. Certainly, we stand ready to help.
ROS CHILDS: Catriona Jackson, thank you very much.
CATRIONA JACKSON: Pleasure.