LAURA JAYES: Universities will play a pivotal role in development and rollout of these new subs, and we need to really skill up here in Australia so that these subs can be delivered on time and on budget, but we all know how things go when budgets blow out. They often do when it comes to submarines and anything to do with defence.
Joining me live now is Universities Australia Chief Executive Catriona Jackson. Catriona, thanks so much for your time. First of all, as you saw details of this announcement roll out yesterday, what were your initial thoughts from your perspective – from the unis? What are they thinking at the moment?
CATRIONA JACKSON: We’ve understood for some time through discussions with government, Laura, that this was a big task for the nation and a big task for universities. We are absolutely up for it. We’ll need workers across a whole range of disciplines. It’s not just about engineering and nuclear physics, but almost the entire gamut of the defence force – psychologists, planners, all sorts of professions which we’ll need to have more of and better of. It’s great to see the South Australian Premier going off to London immediately. We’ve had considerable discussions with colleagues in other countries, the UK specifically, about how we can collaborate here because we need a lot of highly skilled individuals. There’s no point in trying to poach the good people off each other. What we need to do is up our capability across all the allies and really hit this on the head.
LAURA JAYES: We need to poach just a few though, don’t we, get them into our unis?
CATRIONA JACKSON: We will certainly be absolutely in there arguing and recruiting as vigorously as we can because there are skill shortages right across all the disciplines we need people in, so, certainly some change will be required and some vigorous lobbying will be required. But at the same time, this is a really collaborative approach. Working with our allies is the smart way to go about it.
LAURA JAYES: Also, working with the government as well, we’ve been talking about upskilling for quite some time, not just in the defence industry, but right across the board if we want sovereign manufacturing capability. We’ve all seen the eye-watering price tag. Will unis be asking the government for more money to help them skill up for this project?
CATRIONA JACKSON: We’ve been having good conversations with the government and as you’ll be aware, Laura, there’s a review of all the policy settings around universities on right at the moment, being run by Mary O’Kane. We’ll plug into that process and we’ve plugged vigorously into the Defence Strategic Review. We need to make sure we can actually produce the graduates we require at number and at scale. That’s a challenge for us as a country, but one the government has absolutely acknowledged. We’re currently in a capped environment for university places. We’ll need some flexibility inside that cap if we’re to produce the exceptionally skilled individuals across a whole range of disciplines that we need to make this deal the absolute best it can be for the country.
LAURA JAYES: What are you looking at now? Do you look at the current crop of high school students and think, well, that’s how quickly we need to act, we need to get them into university courses that can facilitate this massive project, or you’re thinking more primary school?
CATRIONA JACKSON: I think across the board frankly because the timelines are so big on this, but there’s a sort of stepped approach. You want graduates who are coming through now, you want kids going into university, you want primary school kids, as the South Australian Premier outlined. There will be a lot of work to make sure that those already studying understand the opportunities, and those thinking about studying understand that there are terrific career paths here, so we can really ramp up those capabilities.
LAURA JAYES: What about South Australia in particular? Do you think the South Australian unis are going to take the lion’s share of the benefits from this project, or is it really across the board?
CATRIONA JACKSON: I think it’s across the board. Obviously, there’s particular focus on South Australia because the build will be there in those years’ time and South Australian universities have a history of close relations with defence because of the way things have worked in the past. Certainly, there will be a lions’ effort from them, but the numbers here and the scale here just dictate that this is a whole of sector push.
LAURA JAYES: We have spoken a lot in the past, post-COVID, about the number of international students coming back. I just wondered if you had an update on that, especially after China allowed their students to return to campus and leave the country.
CATRIONA JACKSON: If you remember, Laura, we had a chat a while ago when the Chinese made that announcement. We were a bit nervous that there would be hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of thousands of people coming back, tens of thousands, immediately. There is a really good steady flow. We were at about 40 per cent of international students out of the country in around November, now we’re about 28 per cent, so a really nice gradual return. I think we’ll see even more for second semester this year, but it’s a nice, staged return and it’s good to see those kids back on campus. They’ve been so patient for so many years, studying, like our kids here, from their garage in Beijing, same as people have been doing here from their garage in Bundaberg. Great to see them back on campus.
LAURA JAYES: Are a lot of students still doing a lot of online stuff from home, or across the board are universities kind of demanding that they go back on campus in order to get the grades and graduate?
CATRIONA JACKSON: It’s not a case of demanding. We learned a lot about online over that thing that I don’t even want to mention, the pandemic. We learned a lot about hybrid learning and really good, rich hybrid learning. I think more students are taking advantage of that combination. Also, it’s not all 17-year-olds in university of these days. There are considerable numbers of mature aged students who really love to take advantage of the fact that they can do lectures from home, do tutes from home. I think we’ll see a continued blend, things won’t go back to how they were before Covid is what I’m saying. You’ll see people taking increasing advantage of online opportunities, mixed with face-to-face – face-to-face being so important – but a good set of options so you can have education all through your lifetime to make sure you’re skilled up for whatever career path might come up for you, including one, perhaps, insecurity or defence.
LAURA JAYES: Yep, let’s hope so. Thanks so much, Catriona. Good to talk to you.
CATRIONA JACKSON: My pleasure.