Of course, COVID-19 did not spare the IGR. Beyond delaying its publication by a year, it significantly conditioned the economic outlook. It is a sobering read – the pandemic will have long-lasting effects. Australia’s population is growing slower and ageing faster than expected, while our economy is growing at a slower rate. The ageing population will drive steadily increasing spending on health and aged care.
To combat these pressures, the immediate priorities include improving workforce participation and skills and increasing productivity, which has stalled over the last decade.
Universities are well placed to support the country, and the government, to address these challenges, in two ways.
First, our role in reskilling the nation. Here, Universities have a strong record of achievement. When, in response to COVID-19, the Government introduced a suite of discounted short University courses aimed at helping workers reskill, Universities responded quickly – within weeks, up to 20,000 discounted short course places were made available, attracting thousands of enrolments.
In practically all universities, curricula are increasingly designed with industry mentors to ensure we remain up to speed with what our future employers want. Judging by the latest Employer Satisfaction Surveys, we are largely hitting the mark, with a record 86.8 per cent of employers in 2020 satisfied with graduates’ employability skills. Provided that there is enough funding for places in the system, ramping up the skilling of the workforce is an achievable target.
The skilling of domestic students – whether it is school-leavers or mature-age students re-entering the workforce – is front and centre of our priorities. Equally, we remain committed to the skilling of international students who contribute significantly to our economy and culture, and, in many cases, plug existing skills gaps in the economy. At present, 84 per cent of international students return home after their studies. The remaining 16 per cent make a significant contribution to our national prosperity. As Universities Australia has argued, simplifying the skilled migration visa system could help boost this contribution. As the IGR rightly points out, skilled migration helps boost economic productivity, especially with the forecast of lower population and falling fertility rates.
This brings me to my second point – namely, universities’ pivotal role in lifting productivity, which the Treasurer described as a “national imperative”. The IGR report makes this very clear – unless we manage to increase productivity, the road to recovery is going to be more painful. And while I concur that there is no silver bullet, our universities have so much expertise to offer, which remains untapped.
In her speech to the recent UA conference, the Grattan Institute’s Danielle Wood outlined the role of universities in tackling the nation’s challenges including that of flatlining productivity – they do this by driving innovation via technological development and diffusion. Through their world-class research, Australian universities are constantly identifying ways in which gains in productivity can be achieved.
Let me give you just a quick example from hundreds if not thousands of university-industry collaborations. Researchers from CQUniversity team have worked with farmers to develop hand-held infrared technology that can scan each mango on the tree.
The device counts mangoes, assesses ripeness, and predicts the perfect time for picking.
It’s an innovation that increases productivity and saves costs. Farmers know when to order boxes and how many, when to hire workers to pick, and can get more fruit to market in top condition.
Modelling for Universities Australia by Ernst & Young found the number of businesses collaborating with universities is increasing. This is unsurprising considering the results. The direct benefit to business of university-business collaboration in 2018-19 was $12.8 billion. Overall, the benefit of this collaboration to the Australian economy in 2018-19 was $26.5 billion, and every dollar invested by business an average return of $4.47 was generated.
Importantly, these collaborations help support around 38,500 jobs.
As publicly funded institutions in a challenging economic and fiscal environment, our interactions with Government are by definition usually dominated by the need to make sure we have adequate funding to maintain our immediate core teaching and research obligations. It is time to have more wide-ranging discussions on the way we can partner with Governments to address the nation’s challenges. If the IGR challenges are the Government’s battle, we are then the Government’s natural ally.
John Dewar is Vice-Chancellor and President of La Trobe University, and Chair of Universities Australia.
As published in The Australian on 22 July 2021.