In summary

An edited version of this op-ed was published in The Australian by Professor Pascale Quester, Vice-Chancellor and President of Swinburne University of Technology.

The current model of university funding in Australia is not working. It pits universities against one another in a race for resources that stifles scientific and academic progress.

As the Vice-Chancellor of Swinburne University of Technology – a leading global university defined and inspired by technology, science and innovation – I am excited by the promise of tomorrow’s technology making a positive difference in our world. 

But in order for Australia to reach its full potential as a global leader in STEM excellence, it is vital to fundamentally transform the way the Federal Government funds research and education.

Smaller, specialised universitites 

At Swinburne, our focus is razor sharp: we bring people and technology together to create a better world. Swinburne made the decision to specialise in STEM, not on a whim but with the clear objective to remedy our dire shortage of STEM-capable domestic graduates. This shortage threatens the future of this nation as a knowledge economy where future workers will spend more than twice as much time on job tasks requiring science, maths and critical thinking than today. The time to prepare for this future is now.

In response to the Australian University Accords – a once-in-a-generation opportunity to reform the tertiary sector – we have mapped out a path to make the university sector work smarter not harder. Our submission sets out a series of bold ideas and offers a pragmatic set of recommendations to transform the future of Australian universities.

First, we need to break free from a counterproductive and over-competitive landscape. We must embrace a new roadmap that integrates national research priorities, enhances student experiences and fosters better funding practices for STEM excellence.

This would include better funding for shared infrastructure in key locations dedicated to specific themes. These districts would attract researchers, students and industry partners to gravitate to for scale. Australia is much too small to afford the fragmentation of its research in multiple subscale units, competing for resources and never getting the full funding required to bring about the breakthroughs the country needs to lead in expensive research areas, including health, space or energy generation.

New ‘districts’ in areas of national need  

Despite previous attempts to fund research infrastructure, there are currently few incentives for the sharing of such equipment across the sector, causing duplication and diluting future impact.

A new model of shared large-scale resources would create an engine room of innovation and scholarship. It would alleviate Australia’s well documented ‘brain drain’ by providing secure career pathways for academics at all levels of experience, creating the necessary spaces for revolutionary research and its application at an industry level. Our students would benefit from a richer student life, with opportunities to tailor their education experience to specific areas of expertise.

Funding certainty would also alleviate brain drain if our system allowed the creation of specialised universities. Currently, to specialise in STEM exposes universities to severe and perverse financial penalties. The Job Ready Graduates (JRG) funding model directly undermined our endeavours as a STEM-focused university, cutting our funding per STEM student by about 16%, with no discernible impact on student course choice.

To remain at the forefront of society’s increasing need for transformative technology, our sector must foster a new model to deliver better research, education and economic outcomes, better preparing students for jobs now and into a tech-led future with industry relevant knowledge and skills.

Swinburne believes in the merit of universities specialising in key areas of national need, thereby creating a globally competitive critical mass in areas of strategic importance.

Cohesive pathways to align vocational and higher education

As a dual-sector institution, we support students as they navigate pathways between vocational education and training (VET) and higher education (HE). This pathway should be collaborative and streamlined, but is currently a confusing experience hampered by regulatory barriers. While we are forging ahead and finding our own solutions to this issue, the pipeline connecting VET and HE requires reform, based on the principle of learner-centricity rather than regulatory and funding dichotomisation.

Our sector needs to be stronger, future-focused, resilient and responsive to global ructions. We can accomplish this by focusing on smaller, diverse and specialised universities, through dual-sector collaboration and by embracing work integrated learning.

At Swinburne we have taken the courageous step to be a university unlike any other. We have no appetite for doing everything, but our ambition is to excel and lead in the things we do.  We are focused on the future and driven by how people and technology can work together to build a better world. Working together with a bold vision, we are creating the prototype of a new and different university, fit for the 21st century, that better serves the needs of students, industry and the nation. The Accord and the current review is our moment.

Read Swinburne's full submission here

A roadmap to achieving this vision is also outlined in the Horizon 2025 strategy.

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