Universities Australia Chief Executive Belinda Robinson said the higher education sections of the “Shifting The Dial” report don’t give a full picture of the reality of how universities work and the enormous role they play in lifting productivity.
The report omits key facts on strong graduate employment and high levels of employer satisfaction with graduates.
For example, it ignores the fact that nine out of ten graduates are employed full-time within three years of finishing their studies.
Ms Robinson said the reality was that Australian graduates had strong job prospects, particularly compared to people with no post-school education.
“Not every graduate will walk straight into a job on the Monday after graduation – but 90 per cent will be in a full-time job within a few years of finishing their studies,” Ms Robinson said.
“The fact that these strong employment outcomes have continued despite downturns in traditional industries and high youth unemployment is a real achievement,” she said.
The Commission criticised university investment in research and the links between that investment, international rankings and growing numbers of international students.
“Along with building Australia’s connections with the world, our international education sector happens to be one of Australia’s greatest economic success stories,” she said.
“World-class research is crucial to university rankings that help to attract international students – but it’s also crucial to Australia’s economic growth and productivity.”
In fact, productivity gains from university research were worth an estimated $10 billion a year over the past three decades and the productivity gain from our graduates was worth $140 billion to our economy in 2014.
“Building a $28 billion a year export sector over the last three decades from scratch – that’s how you grow the economy and improve productivity,” Ms Robinson said.
The report sets up a false divide between universities’ focus on research and teaching.
“A defining feature of universities is that they are the only institutions that deliver research-informed teaching. This ensures that students are exposed to the latest thinking and developments in their chosen field of study,” Ms Robinson said.
The Commission was critical of the fact that some graduates end up working in areas outside of their field of study.
“This not a failure – that’s the reality of how careers work. Today’s average 18 year-old will have 17 jobs and five careers during their lifetime,” Ms Robinson said.
“If an engineer ends up working in finance or a lawyer ends up working in government, that’s not a failing of either the student or the university,” she said. “That’s success.”
“Universities impart both general and specialist skills that are applicable in a range of jobs. That gives graduates greater flexibility and more options when they enter an ever-changing labour market.”
The report also recommends linking university funding to whether graduates find a job.
“What next? Will we see them recommend withholding funds from high schools based on school leaver job statistics?”
The Commission raises the idea of higher education coming under consumer law – before concluding there is no pressing need for such a change.
It says “the most prudent short-term option would be to allow the current law to stand” (page 33 of supporting paper number 7).
“On this, we would agree with the Commission that such a shift is unnecessary given Australia already has a strong higher education regulator and quality safeguards.”