*Check against delivery*
Thank you, Melissa, for that very warm welcome.
And my sincere thanks also to the Australian Council of Deans of Science for the invitation to speak today at this important event.
Let me begin by acknowledging the traditional custodians of the land on which we meet, the Ngunnawal people, and paying my respects to elders past and present.
For more than a century, Australian university science has made game-changing discoveries and achieved extraordinary impact on every element of our daily lives.
Your work has shaped our health, our standard of living, and our quality of life.
That work has also nurtured the new generations of scientists we all need to help us adapt to the growing global challenges of the 21st century.
It is a pleasure to be here with you all today as you gather to recognise this work.
I still pinch myself when I’m in a room full of people, surrounded by familiar faces now that the worst of the COVID-19 pandemic seems to be behind us.
The pandemic is part of what I want to speak to you about today – its impact on our sector and the amazing story of how we navigated its extraordinary challenges.
I also want to talk to you about the Government’s Universities Accord process.
The Accord presents a huge opportunity to work with government, in a genuine partnership, to help shape our future and that of the nation.
No one here needs reminding that universities are engines of opportunity and key to Australia’s ongoing success and prosperity.
But the Accord is a real chance to demonstrate to government our value – that universities are national assets embedded in our national fabric.
If Australia is to reach its full potential, we must harness the full power of universities and we can only do that if we have the right policy settings.
We can – and must – do this through the Accord.
But before I get to what’s ahead of us, let’s look at where we’ve come from.
NAVIGATING THE PANDEMIC
We are emerging from a once-in-a-generation crisis.
Politicians and business and health experts have all called COVID-19 the most significant health and economic challenge of our time.
I think few would disagree.
COVID-19’s impact was so far-reaching, virtually no country on earth and no sector of the economy was spared.
Universities, certainly, were not immune to its effects.
Overnight, the university experience, as many know it, changed dramatically as borders closed and lockdowns were implemented.
Hundreds of thousands of international students locked out of Australia, not able to commence or continue their studies in person.
Even more domestic students, unable to attend face-to-face classes.
I remember the searing stories of students studying in their bedrooms and garages – in Beijing, Mumbai, Kathmandu, Hanoi.
And in Sydney, Melbourne, Perth, Shepparton, and Bathurst.
The list goes on.
Universities did so well to connect with students.
Remember, our universities educate 1.5 million students each year.
Incredible find and seek missions were launched to identify where students were, many overseas on university break.
Extraordinary efforts were made to engage with as many as possible.
The students who stuck it out online and studied from home – in Australia and abroad – were so brave and so committed.
And they all continued to do their best, despite many being afraid and confused, not knowing what their futures held.
Universities, adhering to government health orders, giving the best advice and support they could, but given the circumstances often unable to provide the certainty staff and students wanted.
At first, it was impossible to predict the length and extent of the pandemic.
Until it wasn’t.
It quickly became clear we were up against a challenge like never before.
Prolonged border closures became our sector’s kryptonite.
Over the peak of the pandemic the value of education as an export nearly halved – falling from almost $41 billion in 2019 to $22 billion last year.
This contributed to the sector’s first decline in operating revenue since 2008 – a loss of $1.9 billion in 2020.
Universities had to make hard decisions as a result – among them job cuts.
This was a devastating consequence of the pandemic in so many sectors.
Amid all the uncertainty, though, our sector pressed on, continuing to operate through some of the darkest days in our modern history.
There was no alternative.
Universities perform an essential service in our communities – and to our nation.
While other sectors of the economy shut down, universities kept on going.
It was just not feasible to stop teaching.
Nor was it acceptable to delay research and development projects.
We would be poorer if we had – intellectually, socially and economically.
And so, our sector did what it had to do.
Universities rapidly transitioned to online and remote learning and assessment, limiting disruption to students’ participation and progress.
Had we not done this so effectively, the economic fallout I referred to earlier would have been far greater and job losses more extensive.
The impact on students far worse.
By comparison, the value of tourism as an export just about disappeared during COVID, plunging from $22.6 billion in 2019 to less than half a billion dollars in 2021.
Researchers continued to undertake their important work – some in pursuit of a vaccine to combat the deadly virus, others tracing its spread in the community.
University experts permeated the news, providing timely and accurate information to help Australians navigate the disruption and uncertainty caused by the pandemic.
They were relied on for advice on everything from the efficacy of mask wearing and vaccines to the mathematics of social distancing and the dynamics of panic buying.
An analysis commissioned by Universities Australia found that university researchers provided expert commentary in 67,000 media stories about the pandemic.
In our time of need, Australians turned to scientists of all kinds, including epidemiologists, virologists, social scientists and public health experts, to keep them safe.
The pandemic tested our mettle like it has never been tested.
But the way our sector responded and adapted to the greatest heath, societal, and economic challenge of our time is something we can all be tremendously proud of.
Community confidence in our institutions and experts is up.
International students stayed at our universities and are now returning to our shores.
30,000 of them came back within six weeks of borders reopening.
Student recruitment firms say prospective international student leads are at a 12-year high, pointing to a big year in 2023.
Graduates are entering the workforce – as they did throughout the pandemic as well.
And researchers are still producing the knowledge and breakthroughs we need.
If there is a silver lining to be found in COVID-19 – it is that universities continued to play an indispensable role in our communities, like they always have.
THE PATH OUT OF COVID
I touch wood every time I say this, but it seems the worst of COVID-19 is behind us.
Our sector is showing green shoots of economic revival in a post-pandemic world.
Universities are operating again almost as normal, returning as hubs of activity and providing students with the campus experience so many crave.
International students are returning.
We know that universities are community hubs as much as they are educational institutions, particularly in regional areas where they employ so many locals and underpin the local economy.
As a sector, it is important to reflect on what we have been through.
But we must not dwell for too long.
The opportunities before us are too great and too promising.
The Universities Accord process presents the most significant opportunity for policy reform in higher education in Australia in almost two decades.
Not since the Bradley review, announced in 2008 by the then-Labor government, have we had this sort of opportunity to work with government to shape our future.
We have waited 14 years.
To say it is overdue would be an understatement.
Like the Bradley review, which was held against the backdrop of the global financial crisis, the Accord comes after the economic shock of COVID-19, and amid fresh economic challenges presented by the war in Ukraine.
It also follows a change of government, as the Bradley review did.
We have in front of us a clean slate – a chance to reset our relationship with government.
Education Minister Jason Clare is seeking our ideas and our perspectives to forge a new path forward for our sector.
We are fortunate that in our Minister we have someone who values education as much for its intrinsic value as for its contribution to skills and the economy.
Someone who deeply appreciates the important role of our universities as the origin and repository of great ideas and of new insights into existing bodies of knowledge.
Since taking the helm, Minister Clare has continually demonstrated his intention to work closely with us and listen to our advice.
Our discussions with government around the Accord suggest the approach through this process will be no different.
Universities will have a deep role to play, as we should.
The Accord, in and of itself, is an enormous task.
We are being asked what direction we think the higher education sector should take over the next 10, 20, possibly 30 years.
I don’t know when we will have another opportunity like this.
We must seize it with both hands.
A UNITED SECTOR VOICE
As we gear up for the Accord process, I am more convinced than ever of the importance of the sector speaking to government with one voice.
Of course, everyone, every sector and every commentator will have their own view.
But government is looking to us – universities – for a cohesive voice and workable solutions for the future.
To that end, Vice-Chancellors from UA member universities gathered in Canberra last week to begin identifying points of agreement.
Through the Accord, we must continually reinforce the key messages we want to send as uniformly as possible.
This will significantly increase our chances of getting our message through.
Of course, this is easier said than done and hard decisions no doubt await us.
I appreciate, possibly more than most, that universities are unique in nature.
What works in metropolitan areas isn’t necessarily what’s best in the regions.
Through this process we may find that compromises need to be made for the greater good of our sector and our nation.
After all, universities are national assets that Australia can’t do without.
The stronger our university sector, the stronger we are as a nation.
Having a united voice also means that we can continue to promote and advance the positive agenda of universities.
As a sector we have been criticised for not doing this well enough.
Culture wars have amplified the negative voices working against us and unfortunately, for some observers, have come to define our institutions.
This has given rise to negative perceptions of universities in our communities.
We must put an end to this.
Working together, we can.
If we speak in a unified and coordinated way, individual voices will not drown us out.
A clearer message will get through to government about what policy settings are needed to make universities’ teaching, research and community engagement even more effective across the sector for the benefit of the nation.
This will shift the focus back onto the core functions of universities – those being:
- to educate the skilled workers our economy needs to grow and prosper,
- to produce research and generate knowledge to move our world forward, and
- to work with communities around the nation to ensure that the value of higher education and research benefits all Australians.
In a nutshell, universities build Australia’s future – they always have and always will.
Again, the Accord presents us with an opportunity to push this case – as one.
We know that the Minister will announce more details of the Accord next month, including the panel to lead the process and the terms of reference that will define its scope.
We also know that Minister Clare wants it to define Australian higher education as one of the most accessible, equitable, integrated, quality systems in the world.
This gives us an indication of what the Accord will cover.
It will be broad, as any review of higher education should be.
I mentioned earlier that it will be held against a challenging economic backdrop.
To that end, we don’t anticipate tomorrow’s federal budget – the Albanese Government’s first – to include many specific measures in higher education and research.
Beyond, of course, the already announced additional places for under-represented students and the post-study work rights increase for international graduates.
Universities Australia, on our members’ behalf, lobbied for these initiatives.
In the current fiscal environment government has little appetite for new discretionary spending as it fights to curb inflation and ward off other economic pressures.
OUR ECONOMIC CONTRIBUTION
With that in mind, let me reiterate again the importance of continuing to promote and advance the positive agenda of universities and the value our sector adds.
A lot of what universities do helps strengthen the nation’s bottom line.
Of course, this is not all we do by any means – but it is important.
This is a story we must tell and tell again and again.
Initiatives that drive productivity end up paying for themselves over time with the extra economic activity generated, and universities do this in spades.
I will use a few examples.
In research, Australia punches well above its weight.
We represent only 0.34 per cent of the world’s population, yet we produce 4.1 per cent of published research.
And we do it despite the real financial contribution from government decreasing.
Total investment in research and development in Australia sits at 1.79 per cent.
As a percentage of GDP, this is well below the OECD average of 2.68 per cent.
We know, despite this under investment, that Australian research generates enormous economic and social benefits.
Every dollar invested in research returns five dollars to our economy.
Formal collaborations between Australian businesses and universities generate $12.8 billion a year in revenue directly for the firms.
Once this flows through to the economy, these collaborations are contributing $26.5 billion a year to Australia’s income and have created an estimated extra 38,500 jobs.
Lifting investment in university research and development by just one per cent would lift productivity and grow the size of Australia’s economy by $28 billion over 10 years.
This is serious bang for buck.
It begs the question – why isn’t Australia investing more in R&D?
In international education, Australia is a leading provider – third only to the United States and the United Kingdom.
Education is the biggest export we don’t source from the ground, and it supports around 250,000 jobs across the economy.
This makes universities major economic drivers for our nation.
I mentioned earlier that the value of education as an export exceeded $40 billion in 2019, making it our third largest export behind iron ore and coal.
More than half of this revenue goes into the economy, helping pay for the essential services all Australians rely on – like schools and hospitals, defence spending, pensions, and Medicare.
As a sector I believe we do not trumpet this enough.
We help pay the nation’s way, and our sector will be relied on even more heavily in the future as Australia diversifies its export mix.
It isn’t just the revenue international education brings in that makes us stronger.
International students are critical to Australia having the skilled workforce its needs to grow and prosper.
Our world-class universities attract thousands of international students each year, yet only 16 per cent stay on after their studies.
We are worse off for this brain drain, which is in part due to a clunky and slow visa system.
Changes to the visa system could help Australia better leverage the skills of international graduates – talented people who have gained qualifications here and who already have solid experience of life in Australia.
A visa system working counter to Australia’s interests – during a skills crisis no less – will only hold us back.
A simpler system would allow more international students to work in Australia, post-graduation, when and where there is a clear need for their skills.
This would see thousands more nurses and doctors working in hospitals from Geelong to Geraldton and Cooma to Cairns.
Not to mention the skills gaps these graduates would plug across our engineering, information technology, and teaching sectors – all grappling with skill shortages.
Of course, international students are not the only solution to our skills needs, but they can play a stronger part, as part of the vibrant multicultural nation we are.
International education is also a strong tool for diplomacy to boost Australia’s soft power.
The international students we educate become global citizens with a real affection for and knowledge of Australia.
Often, they make business ties and enrich both nations, contributing to a stronger region and a stronger world.
University graduates – locals and those who have chosen to study and work here – make a huge contribution across the whole economy, making it $185 billion dollars larger than it otherwise would be.
Sectors like mining, engineering, health, information technology, and education would not be able to operate without them.
In almost every industry you will find major partnerships with Australia’s universities to keep the pipeline of skilled workers and research and development flowing.
In a changing global environment, we need more university-educated workers, not fewer, to take us forward as a successful and prosperous nation.
For that, we need a funding model that ensures Australia can adapt to growing and changing education and skills needs.
The current Job-ready Graduates funding model is not it.
The Productivity Commission shares this view and has suggested a rethink as part of the interim findings of its 5 Year Productivity Inquiry.
The PC noted that rationing places impedes the efficient acquisition of skills by limiting access or distorting course choice.
Equity and accessibility are hallmarks of Australia’s university system.
These values should be reflected in the way that we fund higher education.
Without them, we won’t have the skilled workers and the research breakthroughs we need to lift the handbrake on productivity and drive prosperity.
Government has indicated that JRG will be closely examined through the Accord process, which we welcome.
In the face of critical skill shortages, economic uncertainty and a changing global environment, universities will play an even greater role in all we are, and can be, as a nation.
Australia needs a strong university system that delivers in our national interest.
We have 185 billion reasons to get the student funding model right.
If it’s a return-on-investment government is looking for, universities are a safe bet.
I have outlined but a few reasons why.
There are so many more.
Every day, students and scholars in our universities come together to tackle our toughest problems, to grasp our greatest opportunities.
More than half of the one million jobs expected to be created in the next five years will require a university degree.
The latest government projections tell us engineers, teachers, health workers and IT professionals are among workers that will be in the highest demand over this period
All require a university education.
Universities are here to help.
The Accord process is our best chance to reinforce to government how we make Australia – and our world – a bolder, stronger, and more prosperous place.
To remind government why Australia needs a strong university sector.
The hard work starts now – through the Accord and beyond.
As a sector, together we can secure the best outcomes for universities and our nation, if we work together.
I look forward to working with you all in this critical endeavour.
Thank you, and happy to take questions.