Topics: Universities Australia Conference 2023, Australian Universities Accord, international students, ChatGPT, artificial intelligence
THOMAS ORITI: Leaders of the nation’s universities will meet in Canberra today to address the sector’s future. It’s a two-day summit to look at a range of challenges including the skills shortage, jobs of the future, artificial intelligence – a lot of chat about things like ChatGPT lately. Catriona Jackson is the Chief Executive of Universities Australia who joins us now from Canberra ahead of the summit. Morning to you, Catriona. Thanks for your time.
CATRIONA JACKSON: G’day, Thomas.
THOMAS ORITI: Firstly, can you give us some insight broadly into how universities and student communities in general are bouncing back since the early days of the pandemic? It’s been a tough few years.
CATRIONA JACKSON: Wouldn’t it be nice not to have to discuss the pandemic every time we had a conversation?
THOMAS ORITI: I couldn’t agree more.
CATRIONA JACKSON: Of course, we must. It’s just such a pleasure to see students flooding back onto campuses from all parts of Australia, but also all parts of the world. I walked through the local university near me just yesterday, the ANU, and seeing students unpacking their cars, going off to check out the sporting grounds, working out where their lecture theaters are, such a pleasure to see the places that I love so much full of life again.
THOMAS ORITI: Okay, but tough times ahead I imagine. What are the focuses of this two-day conference? I do note that one of the issues is this discussion paper on an accord. It was released by the Education Minister, Jason Claire, said to be the biggest reform to the sector in decades. Let’s start there. What do we know about that so far?
CATRIONA JACKSON: The Accord presents an enormous opportunity for the university sector as Minister Clare said yesterday and has said repeatedly, and I assume he’ll reinforce this evening at the conference dinner. This is the biggest opportunity for broad scale, intelligent, evidence-based reform we have had in decades, and universities are grabbing onto the opportunity with both hands.
THOMAS ORITI: What opportunity though? Just for people who don’t understand this discussion paper, can you just tell us a bit more about the elements of what these reforms are considering? It’s the biggest in decades – what are we set to see?
CATRIONA JACKSON: Indeed. Look, it’s right in the middle of the process, so we don’t know what the results will be. What’s really clear is we need to have a really good look at how we run universities, how universities and vocational education, TAFE, work together just to make sure that our system is absolutely fit for purpose, absolutely serving students as well as we can, and that all the policy settings are running in the right direction. Over the last couple of decades, policies are sort of piled on other policies and the system’s a bit perverse, a bit full of conflicting incentives, so there are some real things we can do to make sure that we are really serving the communities that we are at the center of, that we’re making the absolute best of the system. We have a really terrific university system in Australia. It’s really strong. We want to make sure that all those policy settings are making us stronger and making sure we have a good look at the considerable changes ahead. Working life will be profoundly different for everyone under 50, compared to everyone over 50. People will have a really broad range of jobs during their career and there’ll be jobs created that, Thomas, you and I don’t even understand what they are yet. These things all mean that universities and vocational education need to adapt, need to make sure that we’re offering the best way of opening your mind, broadening your mind, getting the skills you need to make the best of your own life and make contribution to your community and economy.
THOMAS ORITI: And in terms of doing that, you need the skills, and I hate throwing this word at you again, Catriona Jackson, but the pandemic. What about plans for more secure employment across the sector? We know that contract and casual workers in Australian universities really did bear a lot of the brunt of revenue losses and those funding cuts to higher education and research that we saw in the early days of the pandemic.
CATRIONA JACKSON: Those funding cuts in the early days, as you say, Thomas, were an absolute tragedy, not just for the individuals involved, but for their families and their communities. They were something that universities did with a very, very heavy heart. We are really pleased that university finances are getting better as we see the opening of borders and the returning of international students and more business as usual, but things will not be the same than they were over the pandemic. We learnt a lot. We learnt an awful lot about modes of education, ways of doing things in a hybrid fashion, reinforced how much people love face-to-face, but that a rich online experience is a really important part of a modern education.
THOMAS ORITI: Did you learn a bit about, sorry to interrupt there, but do we learn a little bit about perhaps our over-reliance on international students? I do note that hearing your optimism at the moment, now all those international students are coming in. And it’s great we’re seeing the vibrant campus life again and all that sort of stuff, don’t get me wrong, but did it teach us a little bit about perhaps our reliance on those fees from international students? Suddenly they’re not there and universities really felt it.
CATRIONA JACKSON: Thomas, Covid laid bare the fragility of our funding system. You’re absolutely right. We do, unlike many of our peer countries, rely on the funds that international students bring to a country with them to fund research. The research is good for those students, good for Australian students because, of course, research is a foundational principle under all of our teaching. One of the really important things to discuss in this big broad review being run independently by Mary O’Kane, a very distinguished Australian, former Vice Chancellor, former chief scientist of New South Wales, one of the big things we need to discuss as a nation is this the rational way to fund the research inside our universities? I would argue we really need to have a good look at this. Being over reliant on any external source to that extent, to the extent we do, is just buying fragility.
THOMAS ORITI: We’re almost out of time, but I have to ask you about this because it’s fascinated us here and it seems to have fascinated a lot of people: calls to ban artificial intelligence. ChatGPT is this latest phenomenon and calls to ban it in universities, the idea that you can input a bit of data and it can write this perfect essay. What’s the general consensus from universities around the country on how to address emerging technology like that?
CATRIONA JACKSON: It’s the absolute discussion of every barbecue across the entire nation.
THOMAS ORITI: I thought it might be.
CATRIONA JACKSON: I think everyone’s done something via ChatGPT. This just proves the point, Thomas, you can’t ban this stuff. It’s like trying to ban alcohol during prohibition. What universities will do is work really hard to use it for serious, educative purposes, make sure that we have all the policies and procedures in place to make sure that it’s not used for bad purposes, which of course is a very substantial prospect. We see this as a tool among a whole bunch of educative tools and it’s just not realistic to try and ban this sort of stuff, to try and stop this kind of progress. Everyone’s using it, let’s be honest about it. Of course, there’ll be changes to assessment procedures, all that sort of stuff, but those things we’re already in train. This is one of a bunch of artificial intelligence changes that we know are coming. One of the great things about universities is the experts who think deeply about these things reside in the institutions that I serve, so we have a terrific wellspring of people to look at it, work out how to deal with it, how to use it for good, and how to try and prevent some of the bits that aren’t so great.
THOMAS ORITI: Okay, Catriona, thank you so much for joining us. All the best for the conference.
CATRIONA JACKSON: Pleasure, Thomas.