Universities Australia Chief Executive Catriona Jackson
History shows big policy reform moments don’t come around often for higher education. When they do, the occasion must be seized with both hands.
Australian universities are on the cusp of one such opportunity.
The Albanese Government’s promised Universities Accord will begin in earnest in the coming months, triggering a comprehensive review of Australia’s higher education system, the first since the Bradley review in 2008.
We have a huge opportunity in front of us to work with government, in a genuine partnership, to help shape our future and that of the nation. We should be bold in ambition and rigorous in our approach – courageous enough to think deeply about how our systems work and whether they best serve our sector and the nation.
We should identify where change is required and how to best achieve it, and where we are better off building on existing strengths.
Through the Accord, we must clearly demonstrate the value of universities and reinforce that their impact is felt beyond lecture theatres and research laboratories. There is an abundance of evidence.
From what we know so far, the Accord will be extensive in scope, perhaps more so than the review conducted by Bradley which, among other things, led to the demand driven system. This suggests the Accord will be the most significant opportunity for policy changes since the then Labor education minister John Dawkins set about reshaping the higher education landscape in Australia in the late 1980s.
The Dawkins reforms led to a significant expansion in university provision, the introduction of HECS and the uncapping of international student fees, among other measures.
These reforms laid the foundation from which Australia has built one of the best higher education systems in the world, capable of producing the innovative thinking that has played such a large part in making us the modern, forward-looking nation we are.
The results speak for themselves. Participation in higher education has increased significantly, previously disadvantaged groups attend university in greater numbers and benefit from the improved life chances of a university qualification, and Australia’s universities punch above their weight globally.
Nearly a third of Australians aged between 15 and 74 now have a university degree – up from just one per cent of the population in the late 1960s and our researchers produce 4.1 per cent of published research, despite Australia representing only 0.34 per cent of the world’s population.
This has helped Australia’s economy to flourish, with 28 consecutive years of economic growth prior to COVID-19 and a world-leading economic recovery on the other side of the pandemic.
Today, universities educate millions of students and employ hundreds of thousands of people, produce research that propels our nation and drive significant economic and social gains. Their impact is felt in every community, by every Australian, every day.
Put simply, Australia would not be as successful without the university graduates who permeate every sector of the economy, making it $185 billion dollars larger than it otherwise would be.
University-led research and development returns five dollars to the economy for every dollar invested, advancing our society economically, socially and technologically.
But as the world around us changes, we’re going to need more of what universities produce, not less.
More than half of the one million jobs expected to be created in the next five years will require a university degree, meaning we will need more teachers, engineers, nurses, scientists and historians to keep our country forward looking.
We will need more research and development to advance our economy and society, keeping us at the cutting-edge of the new industrial revolution and prepared for changes in our geopolitical environment.
The Accord is our opportunity to review the policy framework we have, which has got us to where we are today, and determine where it needs updating to take our sector to the next level.
This is about ensuring universities have the right policy settings to continue producing what our economy and our nation need to succeed and thrive, now and in the decades to come. There will be many questions to ask.
How do we marshall the incredible talent of our researchers in a way that increases our global competitiveness at a time when other countries are rapidly increasing their investment in research and development?
How do we achieve the scale of student enrolment our economy needs at a cost that is affordable to the taxpayer and to students?
What mechanisms do we use to promote closer collaboration between universities and industry to further drive economic growth and prepare us for the challenges and opportunities to come?
How do we better support our universities to serve their communities?
In answering these questions, and others, we can strengthen the framework which has helped guide Australia to where it is today.
Just as the Dawkins and Bradley reforms helped reset the relationship between universities and the Commonwealth, the Accord signals the arrival of higher education’s next big policy reform moment.
This is a rare chance to work with government to make universities stronger for the benefit of the nation.
With a refreshed policy framework, we can harness the full power of higher education and help Australia to reach its full potential. Universities are ready and willing, as ever, to continue building Australia’s future.
Catriona Jackson is the chief executive of Universities Australia