Published in The Australian (November 8, 2022)
Obscured by the myriad economic challenges facing Australia, the geopolitical volatility consuming our defence establishment may have eluded the attention of many Australians.
Rising instability in our region and increasing cybersecurity threats are changing the landscape in which Australia operates, putting our national security and way of life at risk.
Government has responded with a significant boost to our defence capability.
What is troubling is that defence, like many sectors of the economy, is not immune to the skills crisis, with shortages plaguing many areas of our Defence Force, defence industries and complementary sectors.
The shortfall of cybersecurity professionals alone could hit up to 30,000 unfilled positions during the next four years – a deeply concerning prospect in light of the Australian Signals Directorate’s latest cyber threat report.
The ASD found up to 200,000 devices in Australian homes and small businesses are vulnerable to cyber intruders, cybercrime is up 13 per cent and ransomware attacks have jumped 75 per cent.
Yet, at a time when we are facing heightened security risks, the skilled workers who can prepare and protect us are increasingly hard to come by.
Australia’s world-class universities are here to help.
In a submission to the Defence Strategic Review on Tuesday, Universities Australia outlines how universities can work with defence to increase the flow of skilled workers needed to boost capability and keep our nation safe and secure.
This is about much more than boots on the ground.
We are in desperate need of additional engineers, intelligence officers and cyber professionals who can make good on the government’s increased investment in defence capability.
In the next four years defence funding is expected to rise to more than 2 per cent of gross domestic product, while over the decade to 2029-30 the government will invest $270bn to build capability.
The sheer scale of spending lays bare the size of the challenge.
But without a full and skilled workforce, we will continue to see project delays and capability gaps, leaving Australia at greater risk of harm.
Almost all of the skilled workers needed to boost our defence capability will require a university degree.
Universities and defence already have a close working relationship, thanks to the many world-class research projects they collaborate on.
But now is the time to up the ante for the benefit and safety of our nation and our allies and we can do that, strategically and systematically, by:
- Exploring new ways to financially support students to study in areas of defence need.
- Offering students from a range of disciplines a taste test of a defence career through a broader range of internships and work-integrated learning experiences.
- Reconsidering the eligibility requirements for defence internships.
- Making it easier for non-university-educated workers to transition to university study in areas of defence need.
- Boosting research partnerships between defence and regional universities.
Beyond producing the skilled workers that industry needs, universities enable researchers, every day, to undertake research and development work in areas pertinent to defence, including cyber security, artificial intelligence and quantum technologies.
This work is also central to building our defence capability and the success of security pacts, such as the AUKUS and Quad arrangements, hinge on the capacity of our researchers and highly skilled workers.
We would be weaker and more vulnerable if not for the extensive soft diplomacy our universities undertake on behalf of the nation.
In a changing global environment, we need more of what universities offer, not less. There is no time to waste.