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New modelling shows the importance of university research to business

This is an edited extract of a speech to the National Press Club given by Chair of Universities Australia, Professor Deborah Terry AO

New modelling for Universities Australia prepared by Ernst and Young finds close to 17,000 companies in Australia collaborated with a university last year.

That’s a 5% jump in two years. The direct benefit to those businesses from collaboration with universities was A$12.8 billion in 2018-2019. To put it plainly – that’s a return of almost A$4.50 to business for each one dollar invested in collaborative research with a university.

The overall boost that this collaborative activity gives the nation’s economy is now estimated at A$26.5 billion.

We’ve seen first-hand the difference it can make to industry. Just ask mango farmer Ian Groves from near Yeppoon in central Queensland. Thanks to Professor Kerry Walsh, from CQ University’s Institute for Future Farming Systems, the mango industry has been transformed.

His university team developed infrared technology that can scan each mango while it’s still on the tree. The technology can count mangoes, assess their ripeness, and project the perfect time for picking to maximise both flavour and shelf life.

Read more: Why universities are the best places to start a business

New technology can help farmers tell when mangoes should be picked. Shutterstock

And that saves costs – because farmers know when and how many boxes to order, when to hire pickers, and how to get more fruit to market in top condition.

University precincts breathe life into local and regional economies. They’re a shot in the arm for industry. I’ve seen this first-hand both here and abroad.

In the United States, when you visit MIT and Boston, it’s hard to tell where one ends and the other begins.

The same is true for Australian precincts.

In Sydney’s inner-west, the South Eveleigh innovation precinct houses start-up tech firms and spin-offs from uni research. Further west, you’ll find the Agripark in Richmond and the Westmead health precinct. Further west again, you’ll find Lot 14 in Adelaide, now home to the Australian Space Agency, and seriously further west, the Murdoch Health and Knowledge Precinct.

Read more: Universities are research power houses but fail to reap rewards

Down south, there are increasingly dense footprints of industry partners around the Universities of Melbourne and Monash. And up north, in Queensland, you’ll find the Ecosciences Precinct and the Translational Research Institute.

And the list goes on.


So today I want to reiterate our offer to Australian businesses and industry. If you have a business challenge you haven’t been able to crack, ask us to help. The nation’s universities stand ready, willing and able to work with you.

And we have deep expertise to bring to your challenges. We’re reaching out. We want business to reach in. We’re making progress, but we can do more together.

The Australian Space Agency is in Adelaide’s Lot 14. DAVID MARIUZ/AAP

In a speech last year, Professor Alison Wolf of Kings College London, noted that universities are enormously long-lived and successful compared to almost all other institutions in society. And far longer lived than, say, a random sample of companies from the Fortune 500.

Read more: Commercialising university research: a good but costly move

Wolf concludes that as long as R&D keeps generating new ideas and helping growth, the modern university sector will continue to be supported by the state. And she notes more and more people rationally want to go to university so it’s hard for governments to pull the plug on such access for voting citizens.

Which is why we are so committed to working collaboratively with government to address the shared challenges on the horizon. To ensure that as our population grows, our young people have the same access to university education as those who came before them.

To close the education gaps that still exist in our regional communities, in our outer suburbs and in our Indigenous communities. To deliver the skilled graduate labour force that is so essential if our economy is to continue to grow and to diversify.

And to play our role to help shape the future through our education, our research and our innovation.

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