By Catriona Jackson, Universities Australia Chief Executive
In launching the Australian universities accord last year, Education Minister Jason Clare asked what was needed to set the higher education system up for the next decade and beyond. This was a seminal moment, firing the starting gun on the first major review of higher education in 15 years.
The accord comes on the back of a decade that has left universities vulnerable. Constant changes to policy and funding settings have resulted in caps on university places and government investment in research and development falling to its lowest share of gross domestic product.
The corrosive policy and funding uncertainty has made the kind of planning any major institution must carry out difficult.
COVID-19 compounded these issues, throwing up a set of new and unique challenges.
The combined effect of all this is not only detrimental to universities but to the nation. The policy uncertainty and external events have undermined our ability to educate the skilled workers and undertake the R&D Australia and all Australians rely on.
We are only midway through the accord, a process that has the potential to shape the direction of higher education for decades to come, but the answer to Clare’s question is simple: we need policies that help rather than hinder institutions. We need stability and certainty.
Some decisions are more urgent than others and one area we desperately need certainty in is student funding arrangements.
Universities have called for an end to major elements of the Job-ready Graduates package. At its core, the package cut the average level of government funding for student places while shifting the additional costs on to students and universities.
In short, we are being asked to do more with less and everyone loses. Transitional funding arrangements have so far shielded universities from the full impact of the funding cuts. But with these arrangements only in place until the end of this year, institutions are heading for a funding cliff.
This poses an unacceptable risk to both universities and the national economy, which can’t function without the skilled workers we educate.
Universities are vital partners of government and community in delivering national priorities and ensuring Australia has the workforce it needs to remain strong, safe and prosperous. We can’t do this unless we are adequately resourced.
It is in the national interest to simply replace Job-ready Graduates with a new funding model that is fairer for students and provides the resources universities need to educate the next generation.
But, at the very least, Clare should extend the transitional funding arrangements when he stands up at the National Press Club this week. This would shield universities from the full brunt of funding cuts under JRG and give government and the sector time to reach a sensible new policy approach.
Without this reprieve, universities will be confronted with difficult decisions around course offerings – potentially offering fewer student places in areas of critical skill shortages, such as nursing, education, engineering – to cover the funding shortfall. This would further compound the well-documented issues experienced under JRG.
We all know Australia is already experiencing skill shortages in these professions. According to Engineers Australia, we are short 50,000 engineers and this number is growing. This will, inevitably, affect Australia’s ability to deliver new infrastructure in the coming years.
Shortages in education and health mean we don’t have enough teachers in classrooms or enough doctors and nurses in hospitals and nursing homes. Modelling shows Australia needs an additional 85,000 nurses by 2025.
The National Skills Commission’s employment projections show that in the next few years, jobs in STEM disciplines are predicted to grow twice as fast as non-STEM jobs. STEM skills underpin so many modern careers, providing defences against increasingly powerful cyber criminals, capturing the opportunities of artificial intelligence and negotiating its challenges, and making sure we have the home-grown capacity to build nuclear submarines as part of AUKUS.
Australia and Australians can’t rise to these challenges without the skilled professionals educated in our universities – skilled professionals who will define our success, safety and prosperity in the coming decades.
Universities have responded to Clare’s call to grab the opportunity the accord presents with both hands. At this midway point, we ask that he provides some funding certainty, so we can continue to do our job for the nation.