National Press Club address: Glyn Davis on a smarter Australia

Universities Australia chair Professor Glyn Davis speaking at the Higher Education conference in Canberra. He addressed the National Press Club today. AAP Image/Alan Porritt

Universities Australia chair and Vice-Chancellor of the University of Melbourne, Professor Glyn Davis, addressed the National Press Club in Canberra today.

Here is a copy of his speech.


In 1970, when Julia Gillard was in primary school and Tony Abbott starting his secondary education, just 3% of adult Australians held a university degree.

Now we are tracking toward a national target of 40%, with more than a million and a quarter people enrolled in Australian universities this year, on their way to qualifications.

In just two generations, going to university has become a familiar part of life’s journey. Australians hope to be educated and affluent, moving beyond the school leaving certificate to embrace the lecture and the tutorial, the attitudes and mores of a secure middle class.

Australians understand our national prosperity is more than resources. It requires new skills made possible through higher education.

This profound change has encouraged a new Australian outlook. As research released yesterday by Universities Australia reveals, an astonishing 88% of Australians will encourage their children, and young people they know, to attend university.

88%!

That is an historic journey from the tiny numbers of 1970. For the first time, access to a university education has become the aspiration of an overwhelming majority of Australian families.

They choose wisely. As every parent knows, a solid education in trade skills, or a good university degree, are the pathway to economic security.

More than half the jobs created in the Australian economy this year will require a university qualification. High-skilled jobs are growing 1.6 times faster than low-skilled jobs. Graduate incomes, on average, are twice those of school leavers.

Working class or middle, country or city, Indigenous or non-Indigenous – it doesn’t matter. Going to university is no longer an elite concern, but a plan for the future.

This shift in public outlook is confirmed by research commissioned by Universities Australia.

More than 90% of individuals and businesses told researchers that universities make an important contribution to Australian society.

A similar proportion believes a well-funded university system is critical to Australia’s economy and national growth.

Most agree it is important for Australia to increase the proportion of university graduates over the next 10 years.

And 90% of businesses and the public agree that research is an essential part of what a university does.

Australians value the advancement of knowledge, even when the pay-off is long-term. They know the high standards we enjoy in medicine, in engineering, in cultural achievement, are made possible by research from the best minds in the nation.

Australians see universities as particularly well placed to conduct research, given their independence from business and government.

And they see the benefits of higher education up close, especially in regional Australia. University campuses provide contracts for small business, jobs, health services, sporting facilities, art galleries, theatre and the excitement of a community with many young people, lively, engaged, irreverent.

In short, the nation has turned an important corner. Our universities are now viewed as crucial to our country’s future, and vital to the economic prospects of most families.

This makes now the right time to focus attention on the future of our university system.

A Smarter Australia

At the start of this election year, Universities Australia today launches a detailed policy statement, A Smarter Australia, and announces a campaign to promote universities in building our shared prosperity.

Our policy advice is addressed to the next government of Australia, regardless of party. It proposes a partnership through a specific and detailed set of proposals – some to be implemented by universities, others in the hands of the Commonwealth.

This is a call for political leaders to recognise the asset for this nation in the 37 public and two private universities represented by Universities Australia. We aim to make higher education core to the national vision for our economic future.

Through the ideas outlined in A Smarter Australia, an already strong university system can become truly great.

A Smarter Australia advocates:

  • continued growth in Australians accessing higher education by maintaining the demand-driven system;

  • supporting the global engagement through expanding the export of international education;

  • sustaining Australia’s research effort through support for research infrastructure, and an expanded research workforce;

  • increasing investment in teaching over the next five years; and

  • reducing the regulatory burden on universities.

Universities and prosperity

The arguments for greater investment and more supportive policies for our universities are popular - and compelling.

The reason is simple: our nation values equality of opportunity and rewards hard work. Universities are the key to maintaining an equitable and vibrant society in the knowledge age.

Other countries know this already. Consider the substantial investments in universities in a number of Gulf states made rich from oil. Qatar, which boasts the highest GDP per capita in the world, is pouring billions into its university system.

To quote Sheikh Abdulla bin Ali Al-Thani, a member of Qatar’s ruling family and a former university professor: “… the blessing of the oil and gas won’t last forever – so focusing on something sustainable is more important. Having been blessed with the wealth, there is no better way of using it than education.”

It won’t last forever, and there is no better way of using it than education.

What other nation, made rich from natural resources, might benefit from such wisdom?

This same approach is being pursued with vigour by many of our Asian neighbours, as they build world-class universities and make unprecedented investments in research.

We can and must do likewise.

Australia – a talent for higher education

Fortunately, we start with a major advantage: Australians have a talent for higher education.

The most recent global survey of national higher education systems ranks Australia number eight in the world. This is a better performance than Australia achieved at the London Olympics, where we came tenth.

There are just nine Australian companies listed in the Fortune Global 500, but there are 19 Australian universities in the world’s top 500, five of these in the top 100.

There are so many reasons to invest in universities: they are major employers, often the largest in Australia’s regions. They promote innovation and develop social capital.

They build capabilities in almost every sphere of national achievement. And higher education is a powerful instrument of soft diplomacy. To date, the only political debate about education is about schools.

That’s fine. There is no more important issue than the quality of school education. With speculation the May budget will implement recommendations from the Gonski Review, an important step seems in prospect.

An important first step. Ensuring Australian children are well educated in their 13 years of schooling is essential. But waiting for them on graduation must be a quality university system. Their future requires education that carries students seamlessly from school to trades, vocation and higher education.

This is the challenge for government and universities: to achieve the best possible university system. To work together to make Australia an even smarter and more prosperous nation, wealthier in every sense.

A Smarter Australia sets out specific initiatives by universities and government, toward four goals: participation, global engagement, research and innovation, sustainable investment and better regulation.

Participation and access

We start with access.

Every qualified Australian should have the chance to go to university. Not all will accept the challenge, but high levels of participation in universities are crucial for national success.

We have lots of smart people. Their talents are part of our natural resources. The bigger the pool we draw from, the more prosperous everyone will be. That’s why we must find university places for qualified students regardless of social background, location or physical circumstance.

Universities Australia strongly supports the national target to lift university participation among students from low socioeconomic backgrounds to at least 20% of enrolments. We must lift participation among students from regional and remote Australia. And we all know Indigenous Australians should be represented in universities in at least the same proportions as other Australians.

All these goals are in our grasp. On some campuses, more than half the students already come from a low socioeconomic background.

And innovation will expand opportunity. Think of Charles Darwin University, reaching out to students through online education and outreach teachers, deploying satellite- connected mobile classrooms to take education and training to far reaches of the Northern Territory.

To ensure campus reflects the whole of our society, universities will work with government to achieve national participation goals and broaden pathways into university study.

Much of the necessary machinery is already in place. The demand-driven system provides places for all Australians, and income-contingent loans ensure cost is no barrier to taking up the opportunity.

Yet more can be done, including improved links between vocational education and university study, targeted income support, and better student housing.

A globally engaged university sector

Our second goal is a globally engaged university sector.

Australian universities are among the most successful in the world at educating international students. International education has replaced tourism as Australia’s biggest source of service exports.

International students sustain our universities, create tens of thousands of jobs, and share knowledge across the world.

Educating so many of our neighbours is Australia’s most significant contribution so far to the Asian century.

Australian universities are global and entrepreneurial. More than 20 Australian public institutions have courses or campuses in Asia.

RMIT alone educates 6,500 students every year in Vietnam. More than 5,000 people study at Curtin University in Singapore and Malaysia. Monash University hosts campuses in Asia, Europe, India and South Africa. This is a sector of global significance.

Australian universities have now educated two and half million international graduates.

In doing so, we create a vast network of alumni connecting Australia with the region. There are champions for Australia in every Asian city and beyond. The Asian Century is the University Century.

We can build further on this success. By adopting the five year strategy recommended by Michael Chaney and released today, we can more than double international student numbers to more than 700,000 a year by 2030. Our present $14.76 billion a year education export industry will grow even larger, bringing benefits to every Australian.

This ambitious plan requires Australia to maintain a reputation for quality education, with an approach that welcomes international students through thoughtful policies on visas, access to work, safe and affordable accommodation, health care and transport.

Get this right, and university graduates throughout the region will speak first hand about Australia as a friend.

A powerful research and innovation system

The third goal of A Smarter Australia is a powerful research and innovation system.

Our universities are central to the national innovation effort, collaborating closely with industry, government and the community. Over the next decade, Australia should be recognised as a leader in the OECD world for the creation and practical application of knowledge.

This requires outstanding fundamental research and strengthened capacity for research training.

We have a way to go. Australians do great research, producing breakthroughs that find quick application in vital fields such as medicine and public policy.

But national investment in research remains modest, and industry take-up of research lags at the bottom of OECD measures. Only 3.1% of innovating Australian businesses source their ideas or information from a higher education institution.

Thought is needed on both sides, because great things happen when researchers and industry work together. Think of the bionic ear, which has improved the lives of people around the world. What began as a research project led by Professor Graeme Clark at the University of Melbourne eventually gave rise to Cochlear, a global research-based company with an annual turn-over approaching $800 million, and impressive new facilities at Macquarie University.

Universities across the country are working hard to improve enterprise links. The University of Wollongong’s Innovation Campus co-locates commercial and research organisations to promote an exchange of ideas.

The University of Sunshine Coast’s Innovation Centre has helped entrepreneurs raise $26 million in capital for more than 90 local businesses.

But we need a national research infrastructure program, an expanded research workforce and long-term commitments to the Australian Research Council and the National Health and Medical Research Council. These ambitions are detailed in A Smarter Australia.

Investment and regulation

The fourth and closing goal of the Universities Australia policy statement is public investment and smarter regulation.

Universities Australia sees substantial scope for reform in higher education to provide universities with autonomy to innovate, lift efficiency, cut costs, and improve quality.

Our universities are already among the world’s most efficient, ranked in the top five by the OECD for teaching and research. They outpace productivity growth in most other sectors of the Australian economy.

Australian universities are markedly entrepreneurial, whether going off-shore or exploring the potential of online technology.

We have long-established but innovative distance courses from institutions such as Deakin and the University of New England. More universities are using web-based delivery to expand access. In the past year, for example, Professor Chris Mackie and his team at La Trobe University have welcomed almost 200,000 students from around the globe to subjects on Ancient Greece and Ancient Rome delivered through iTunes U.

Universities are also looking beyond traditional public funding.

Australian universities lead the world in attracting international students, who support the finances of every institution.

And philanthropy is an aspiration, greatly encouraged by recent generous donations to the University of Sydney and the Australian National University. A Smarter Australia advocates matched funding programs and other proven incentives to unlock further philanthropy.

But the Commonwealth government must play a direct role through funding and regulatory reform. A Smarter Australia seeks to maintain indexation for funding per student, and a timetable to address funding shortfalls identified by recent external reviews.

Let us be clear – there has been a notable and welcome increase in public funding over recent years.

Schemes such as the Education Investment Fund are without recent precedent in Australia. They have supported the construction of superb new facilities on campuses across the nation.

And despite cuts at the end of 2012, overall public investment in research has improved markedly over the past five years, to the benefit of national innovation.

But spending on teaching remains low.

Twice in the last five years government-appointed review panels have identified specific shortfalls in funding for university teaching. In terms of GDP, Australia now ranks just 25th out of 29 advanced economies for public investment in higher education.

Better-funded institutions in our region are pressing hard. Now is the right time to act.

Recognising difficult financial times, A Smarter Australia proposes an incremental response to the funding shortfall, with indexed base funding to increase by 2.5% annually over the next five years.

This would draw Australia closer to OECD averages for public investment, and address deficiencies identified by both the Bradley and Lomax-Smith reviews.

A Smarter Australia sets out a blueprint for investment and regulatory reform, but acknowledges the technical complexities involved. These will be addressed during the year by a series of policy papers from Universities Australia.

Campaign

So four vital policy goals – participation, global engagement, research, and investment with smart regulation – provide the way forward.

We hope the people of Australia will embrace these ambitions. Our research confirms that Australians are keen to know more about universities, and to ensure places on campus for their children.

To quote the newly fashionable Abraham Lincoln, “With public sentiment, nothing can fail. Without it, nothing can succeed.”

So today Universities Australia announces a $5 million national campaign to promote policy reform and encourage wider awareness of higher education.

The campaign is funded entirely from dividends earned by a company owned by Australian universities.

Let me emphasise, not one cent of student fees or Commonwealth grant money will be spent on this campaign.

We will engage Australians in a conversation about how universities can contribute to a more prosperous and intellectually vibrant Australia.

Australia boasts one of the best and most accessible higher education systems in the world. We do great research. We earn billions for the nation in export dollars. Around the region and the world, Australia is seen as a source of knowledge, a country that takes its place among the great education centres.

Our campaign will share these stories.

But Universities Australia is not a political organisation. We support no party. When the writs are issued, the campaign will stop.

Our job is to advocate ideas as political parties prepare policies for the 2013 election. We want support for investment in universities to be bi-partisan wisdom.

Women and men of the National Press Club, in the 2010 election campaign higher education was all but overlooked.

Liberals, Labor and the Greens alike issued brief policy statements about higher educationt just days before the poll, long after the horse race overwhelmed any discussion of ideas.

This was desultory and disappointing. We are determined 2013 will be different.

The future of Australia’s universities – and the hopes of that 88 percent of Australian families who want their children to have a chance for university education – demand more considered debate. The electorate should know, long before polling day, where every party stands.

Through A Smarter Australia, the members of Universities Australia make clear our aspirations.

And we have shared this vision with our communities. This morning vice-chancellors across the nation sent emails launching the campaign to the 110,000 people who work in the sector, to the 1.25 million local and international students who study at an Australian university, and to the many millions more alumni who remain proud members of their university community

No matter where they live – in the suburbs or the city, remote communities or right near campus – young Australians look to the political leaders of this nation to ensure a tertiary education is available to everyone.

It is a responsibility everyone in this National Press Club must share.

A Smarter Australia – a goal and a plan, released today to spark a national conversation.

Since 1970 this nation has undertaken a remarkable journey. Children in school then are now our national leaders. They know, first hand, that university education can contribute powerfully to the prosperity and wellbeing of the Australian people.

So do you. Be part of the policy argument. Help spread the message – in a world where resources run out, there is no smarter investment in the future than a great university system for Australia.