The next election arrives at a critical juncture for Australia’s universities and the role they’ll play in our national recovery and prosperity.
More than two years have elapsed since Covid-19 closed lecture theatres and international borders, and up-ended the lives of staff, students and their communities. Yet our universities have proved to be resilient. They have been hard at work repairing the damage wrought by the pandemic – not just for themselves, but for the communities they serve. It came as no surprise that, during the height of the NSW and Queensland floods, our universities immediately threw open their doors and hearts.
One standout example is Southern Cross University, whose Lismore campus quickly transformed into an evacuation and co-ordination centre to house displaced locals, provide food and supplies, provide a home for local schools and offer a base for the region’s recovery effort. It’s the same “can do” attitude that campuses displayed during the bushfire crisis two years earlier.
This is just one example of how our universities work together with their communities to overcome seemingly insurmountable obstacles with ingenuity, expertise and creativity. However, as we look beyond the pandemic, now is the time to reaffirm and harness universities’ role in addressing the biggest challenges facing our economy – skills and productivity.
Skilled graduates bring bright ideas, critical thinking and the latest knowledge to improve business productivity and change lives. Australia’s university qualified workers expanded the economy by 8.5 per cent, or $161bn, in 2018. Looking ahead, the National Skills Commission projects that, of the 1.2 million jobs which will be created between November 2021 and November 2026, more than half will require a degree.
In addition, a growing number of Australians will soon be looking to enter university. Data from the Australian Bureau of Statistics predicts a huge jump in the number of 18-year-olds in the next few years (the so-called “Costello babies”). The growth of this group will double in size from 6,000 additional 18-year-olds, compared to the previous year, to more than 12,000 in 2024 and 2025.
To equip these young Australians with the skills needed to thrive in the economy of the future and drive productivity growth, the supply of university places must keep pace with increasing demand.
We need to prepare now. We must ensure that these young Australians have the same opportunities to go to university as their predecessors – and that they will be ready to meet the nation’s skills needs.
And yet, universities are already stretched. The pandemic has reduced the sector’s ability to cross-subsidise the nation’s research capability – which it did before the pandemic at about $3.3bn a year, mostly from international student revenues.
Even with recent government investments in university research, such as the University Research Commercialisation package, questions around sustainability and global competitiveness of university research funding remain, especially for basic research.
The case for investment in university research is strong. There is a clear link between R&D investment and the innovations that will drive post-pandemic recovery. For every $1 invested in research conducted in universities, $5 is returned to GDP, according to a UA-commissioned report by Deloitte Access Economics released last week.
It shows that every extra 1 per cent invested in university research will return growth in our economy of $2.4bn annually.
There are few geese that lay such golden eggs.
In 2018, universities spent $12.2bn on research. They undertake a growing share of R&D – from 24 per cent of Australia’s total research a decade ago, to 36 per cent in 2019-20.
Universities now perform more than 90 per cent of the fundamental research and 42 per cent of applied research undertaken in Australia. This research benefits every Australian, every day.
And yet, the sector’s capacity to continue to operate at this level has been affected by the pandemic – with the financial impact taking many years to flow through.
While the quality of our university research is world-renowned, as a nation we can do more to connect our industries to the great ideas inside our universities. This must be a long-term agenda, where the nation’s industries and universities see collaboration as “business as usual”.
It is crucial that, against the backdrop of the forthcoming election, a future government understands that, when it invests in university R&D, it builds future jobs, future industries and future prosperity for all Australians.
Securing sufficient university places for the next generation of young Australians and using knowledge to drive productivity and prosperity are not lofty ambitions.
They are part of the birthright and inheritance of all Australians.
We are determined to pursue both in the national interest.