In Summary

In an opinion piece published in the Australian Financial Review, Professor Linda Kristjanson, Vice-Chancellor, Swinburne University of Technology, reflects on the role that universities have to play in the future envisioned by our new Prime Minister, Malcolm Turnbull.

Australians woke on Tuesday to the news that we have a new Prime Minister. It’s early days in the life of Malcolm Turnbull’s administration but the first signs for universities are encouraging. For our part, universities are ready to engage.

Turnbull has made a point of expressing optimism for Australia’s future while also highlighting some of the profound economic challenges that our country will face. He has spoken about the Australia of the future as a nation that is agile, innovative and creative. He has also challenged people to see that the disruption that is being driven by changes in technology can uplift our living standards if we are smart enough to take advantage of the opportunities.

In starting out like this, Turnbull is creating a different narrative to those who have preceded him. Those of us who are old enough will remember that one of John Howard’s scene-setting remarks was that he hoped Australians would feel ‘relaxed and comfortable’ under the government he led. There is no sign of that from Turnbull, who appears to understand that the times require a leadership that holds up uncomfortable truths and seeks to engage people in responding to the great economic changes that technology will bring about.

Australia’s universities are natural partners for government in the effort to create national prosperity. The industry-engaged research that we produce drives and supports the innovation that our businesses need to be internationally competitive. The graduates that we produce are the people who will power Australia’s future economy. To succeed, they need to be agile, innovative and creative. They need to be equipped with the knowledge and soft skills they need to be ready for careers in an employment market that is more fluid than ever.

We are ready

Universities are ready to play their part. We are ready because Australia has a strong system of higher education which is the envy of many countries. We are ready because the development of our university sector has been underpinned by stable funding arrangements that have enjoyed broad bipartisan support for the good part of twenty-five years.

Stability of funding has allowed universities to be entrepreneurial. We understand only too well the need to innovate because improved connectivity is challenging the way in which universities create and transfer knowledge. Universities face technological disruptions of our own and this has required us to be creative in the way in which we respond. We get it and we are up for it.

Our higher education system is a strong one because it is so diverse. Each of our universities is different with its own mission, its own character and its own strengths. Our system is strong because higher education funding arrangements have supported universities in scaling up to provide access to more Australians over time. This has been important given that demand for higher levels of education has increased to match the increasing complexity of the Australian economy. Our future as a clever country will require more Australians to be able to skill up. Higher education just for the ‘elites’ is a thing of the past.

One of the greatest strengths of Australian higher education is that university is not priced out of reach of most Australians. Access to educational opportunity is not dependent on the postcode that someone grew up in or how well off their parents are. Our world-leading income contingent loan scheme allows students to defer the cost of their education until they are earning a decent income. Mess with this and we risk dismantling one of the key features that has powered our success.

Australian universities continue to rise in independent international rankings, right across the spectrum from established sandstones to challenger ‘red brick’ universities. In the most recent international rankings, ANU moved into the world top 20 while all six of Australia’s technology-based universities also improved in rank. This is not the measure of a system which is fundamentally broken.

Now is the time to invest

And yet our higher education system faces threats. Among the greatest of these is the proposal to deregulate fees so that universities can set prices without limit, and to simultaneously remove all limits on the amounts students can borrow from taxpayers to meet these costs. This was reckless policy, now rejected twice by the Senate.

The truth is that no attempt at higher education ‘reform’ that is built around a straight-up funding cut of 20% can be justified. Among OECD nations, Australia already ranks second lowest for public investment in tertiary education and our student contributions are already among the highest. Whatever problems we face, cutting government investment and saddling students with higher debt is not the answer.

There is no compelling case to radically alter the architecture of Australian higher education. If we are serious about making the most of our natural competitive advantages as a smart country, now is the time to invest.

Malcolm Turnbull is right that as a nation, we can’t expect to future-proof ourselves by doing things the way that they have always been done. Australia will need strong universities to produce the knowledgeable and creative workforce we need to prosper in the economy of the future. Now is the time to build on the strong outcomes that universities have delivered and to back them even more.