The annual Universities Australia Conference has been a high point in the higher education calendar for the past 13 years. Not surprisingly, in the midst of a pandemic, this year’s event will be markedly different to those that have gone before.
Not just because of social distancing requirements, but because many of those attending – including keynote speakers – will do so online rather than in-person.
With international borders closed, Universities Australia – like its members – has moved to a hybrid business model encompassing both face-to-face and the virtual world.
It underscores an important truth about the adaptability and resilience of Australia’s higher education sector. Even in the midst of the global pandemic, universities found creative and innovative ways of delivering high quality teaching. Whole curriculums were moved online overnight and hugely creative approaches were taken to get practical classes done. Students – Australian and international – showed incredible flexibility in meeting the challenges of socially distanced learning.
We all pulled together to support each other as the world around us turned upside down. Students and staff from here, and from across 140 nations around the globe.
Encouraged by successive governments over decades, Australia’s universities have opened their doors to the world. International education has grown to become our largest services export.
It was a success that generated plenty of winners: Australian students gained a broader view of their world. International students gained a world class education as well as a love for, and deep knowledge of, Australia.
The Australian economy benefited to the tune of more than $41 billion a year in additional student spending. More than 250,000 full-time Aussie jobs were supported in sectors as varied as retail, tourism, and accommodation, as well as education.
And the revenue from international education fuelled Australia’s standing army of experts that place universities at the center of our national research capacity.
In 2018, universities spent $12.2 billion on research, undertaking a growing share of the nation’s R&D – from 24 per cent of Australia’s total research effort a decade ago, to 34 per cent in 2017-18.
Universities now perform around 90 per cent of the fundamental research undertaken in Australia and 43 per cent of our nation’s applied research.
So, where is Government in this mix? According to the Department of Industry, in 2019-20 the Australian Government investment in R&D is 0.48 per cent of GDP, the lowest in four decades.
You can’t have an economic recovery without investing in university research and development.
There is a clear link between R&D investment and the innovations and productivity increases that will drive post-pandemic recovery. For every $1 invested in higher education research, $5 is returned to GDP, according to recent Deloitte Access Economics.
In February, Universities Australia estimated a $1.8 billion reduction in universities’ operating revenue in 2020 and a projected $2 billion revenue reduction in 2021, compared to their actual operating revenue in 2019.
Against that background, the $1 billion announced by Government in the October Budget came as a welcome acknowledgement of the central role of research to national recovery. It saved jobs and research capacity.
But that injection was never meant to be a long-term fix. A sustainable solution on research funding is urgently required.
Currently, there is a thoughtful discussion underway between the university sector, the University Research Commercialisation Scheme Taskforce, business and Government about how to improve the commercialisation and translation of university research. It’s an initiative we warmly endorse, but it does not solve our problem.
There are certainly opportunities for universities to better commercialise the fruits of their research, and we have already developed a range of ideas about how best to achieve that. But no matter how well we do at better reaping commercial rewards from research, it is not a silver bullet for the funding problem.
Successful research commercialisation is in the national interest and will reap broad economic rewards. It will, however, make little difference to university bottom lines and that leaves us with a supply problem.
Surely we want to remain a major player on the world’s research stage, adding to a long and distinguished list of discoveries, innovations and inventions made in Australia and which have changed the world. Breakthroughs such as IVF, cervical cancer vaccine, shatter proof car wing mirrors or the bionic ear.
This is not a lofty ambition. It is a place we have made for ourselves through hard work and we must hold it in the national interest.
In the short-term, surely it is not beyond us to devise a national plan for the safe return of international students, with careful quarantine, from low-risk nations.
Then we need to fully engage in a national conversation about how we properly fund research – how we hold our hard-won place in the hugely competitive business of using knowledge to drive national recovery and prosperity.
Catriona Jackson is Chief Executive of Universities Australia.
As published in The Australian on 1 June 2021.