Universities Australia Chief Executive Catriona Jackson
‘Preparing graduates to drive Australia’s future’
Thank you, Ricky, for that warm welcome.
And thank you to the National Association of Field Experience Administrators for the invitation to address this year’s annual conference.
I’m sorry I can’t be there in what I’m sure is sunny and warm Cairns, but it is a pleasure to have this opportunity to speak to you all, nonetheless.
Let me start by acknowledging the traditional custodians of the various lands on which we are all gathered today – I know we have virtual and in-person delegates.
I pay my respects to all elders past and present.
It was only a few months ago that I was up in this general part of the world, albeit a few hours further south in Townsville.
I had the opportunity then to visit James Cook University where I was amazed to learn the extent to which some courses were embedded with local industry.
Most first-year engineering students at JCU are involved with local companies, gaining valuable on-the-job experience but also, helpfully, plugging skills gaps which we know are felt more acutely in regional towns like Townsville.
I rarely need to look hard or far to see the impact our universities have, and hearing that was just another reminder of what we do for the nation.
That is, to provide the skilled workers who drive our productivity and economic growth.
In some cases, even before they graduate, which I’ll come back to.
This is by no means all that we do.
Universities perform so many vital functions on behalf of the nation, in addition to educating future members of Australia’s skilled workforce.
They undertake the research and development activities that propel Australia’s social, technological and economic advancement.
And they support the communities they belong to through various initiatives and links – in good and bad times.
Today, though, I want to focus on our role in educating the skilled people our nation relies on so heavily.
Each year, our universities educate around 1.5 million people.
Once they graduate, these people permeate every corner of the economy, making it hundreds of billions of dollars bigger than it otherwise would be.
Engineers to design and deliver the projects we need to transition to a clean energy future, and the roads and houses to support a growing population.
Nurses and doctors to maintain the good health of our people.
Teachers to form creative, flexible minds, ready to tackle the biggest challenges and shape the future of the next generation.
IT professionals to develop Australia’s cyber defences in a fast-changing geopolitical environment.
It is these professionals who underpin a higher and more sustainable standard of living for all Australians, regardless of where they live.
It’s a simple fact that our nation can’t function without these workers, who are educated at our universities.
It’s also a fact that we need more of them, and quickly.
The National Skills Commission’s employment projections show that more than half of all new jobs will be highly skilled – meaning they will require a university qualification.
Jobs in health care, professional, scientific and technical services, and education and training.
All those trusted professions you can’t enter without a degree are among the fastest growing industries.
These are all occupations that will continue to drive our economy and the societal advances Australia needs to remain strong and competitive.
We estimate that not meeting the NSC’s target for university-educated professionals will cost the economy $7 billion by 2026.
Compounding the need for more skilled workers to fill the jobs of the future is the fact that we don’t have enough of them right now.
Australia is facing its worst skills shortage since the 1960s, with talent gaps apparent right across the economy.
The government’s latest skills shortage analysis shows professional occupations are worst hit.
Forty-eight per cent of professional occupations, which generally require university education, are in shortage, while only 30 per cent of all other professions are in shortage.
Health professionals, engineers, IT specialists, scientists.
This is not a new issue, but it is getting worse.
The share of professional occupations in shortage has increased from 19 per cent in 2021, to 39 per cent in 2022, to 48 per cent in 2023.
The repercussions of this will continue to be felt far and wide if not addressed quickly.
I say continue because Australia’s skills issues are well-documented, and they have a lot to do with our long-running productivity problem.
According to the Productivity Commission, productivity grew just 1.1 per cent per year in the decade to 2020.
This puts our overall productivity growth at a 60-year low and the turn of the decade has done little to change that.
In the June quarter this year, productivity decreased by two per cent as record-high hours worked outpaced growth in what that work produced.
In essence, we are working more hours just to make and buy the same amount of goods and services.
As the Productivity Commission put it, Australians are running just to stand still.
This concerns our universities because we are responsible for educating the bulk of Australia’s skilled workers and more of the skills and capabilities these people develop at university are needed to arrest this productivity slide.
It is a responsibility we bear on behalf of the nation, and one which we take seriously because Australia’s future hinges on the skills, talents and knowledge of those we educate.
But it is not just about quantity.
Quality is just as, if not more, important.
And we do well here – employment prospects for university graduates are stronger than ever.
The latest graduate outcomes survey shows 78.5 per cent of Australians who recently completed an undergraduate degree were in full-time employment in 2022, up from 68.9 per cent in 2021.
This is good for graduates and the nation.
It is also good for employers, who are continuing to back our university graduates.
According to the 2022 Employer Satisfaction Survey, 84.1 per cent of employers are satisfied with recent graduates across all subjects.
That’s not to say we are perfect, and it’s not to say we don’t have work to do.
As working environments become more complex and fluid, we need to take a good look at how we educate students. Therein lies the importance of what has brought us together today – the role of work-integrated learning in university education.
A National Skills Commission report from 2021 found 75 per cent of employers said previous work experience is the most important credential when considering job applications.
Research from the Australian Collaborative Education Network backs this.
They found work-based WIL experiences during undergraduate study are associated with the highest rates of full-time graduate employment.
The same report found that once employed, graduates who undertook a WIL experience feel most prepared for work.
It’s little wonder the National Skills Commission’s 2021 report found that 40 per cent of jobs are awarded to people who are known to the employer.
This is a significant benefit of WIL – not only does it provide students with hands-on experience, but it also allows them to make connections and present themselves as familiar with the job when they apply for work.
In 2018, Universities Australia undertook an audit of work-integrated learning and found that just one in three undergraduates had access to some form of work placement during their degree.
We knew then that demand outstripped supply.
Now, we are seeing many institutions expanding their WIL offerings – in some cases making job placements a compulsory aspect of all undergraduate degrees.
Australian universities are well placed to expand opportunities for WIL and significant opportunities exist to scale up activities by broadening business participation.
Around 500,000 WIL placements are taken up every year in Australia.
With the right policy settings and supports in place, universities could work with industry to easily support double that number.
It’s a no-brainer – but universities can’t do it alone.
We need industry to step up and make more places available.
It would be a win-win-win – good for students, good for universities and good for workplaces.
Next month, Universities Australia will launch a new national work-integrated learning strategy to drive that engagement.
The new strategy aims to bring higher education providers, industry and government together to provide high-quality, responsive and sustainable opportunities for students to learn through real work experiences.
It will provide a common definition of WIL – something we don’t currently have – that reflects the developmental stages of engagement between higher education providers, students and industry and community partners.
It will also keep all players accountable by providing measures to access and improve WIL progressively, and outlines steps to improve the WIL experience.
In developing this strategy, we have partnered with some of Australia’s biggest business and industry groups, including the Australian Chamber of Commerce and Industry, the Australian Industry Group, the Business Council of Australia and the Australian Collaborative Education Network.
Given the evolving landscape of Australia’s skills needs and global challenges, collaboration among higher education, businesses, government and community groups is becoming increasingly crucial.
The industries that drive our economy and spur productivity can’t function without the skilled graduates that come out of our universities.
The government can’t deliver national priorities without the skilled graduates that come out of our universities.
It’s clear that we bear an enormous responsibility in educating the people that our nation can’t do without.
We need all partners pulling together to achieve the best outcomes for students, for businesses and industry, and for the nation.
Australia is entering a complex period in which we are navigating a whole series of multigenerational challenges.
These include the energy transition, the AUKUS initiative and seismic geopolitical change, an ageing population, and digitalisation.
There are so many others.
We cannot rise to these challenges without universities and the skilled workers we educate.
Addressing them requires us to think about how we can educate – initially through to upskilling and reskilling – individuals to work in the professions that are vital to our economy, our health and our safety.
Teachers, nurses, doctors, IT professionals, teachers, journalists, engineers.
The list goes on.
The further integration of work-based learning experiences into higher education is a necessary part of preparing people for the future of work in a fast-changing, diverse and sophisticated economy.
It will ensure the graduates our universities produce can hit the ground running in their chosen career.
It will ensure businesses and industry have access to the people they need, at a level they need.
It will ensure Australia has the skilled and talented workers needed to navigate the multigenerational challenges before us, and to continue to grow economically and prosper in the decades ahead.
We all have a role to play.