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Universities Australia urges major investment in innovation amid bipartisan embrace of the future

A university graduate outside Parliament House in Canberra. Lukas Coch/AAP

Universities Australia on Wednesday is releasing a pre-election blueprint calling for major investment in research and innovation, while declaring that the recent “funding limbo” for the sector has produced “intolerable” instability.

The “Keep it Clever” policy statement urges initiatives to increase researcher mobility between universities and industry, a premium tax concession rate for businesses collaborating with universities on research and development, and increased funds to support stronger international research collaboration.

Universities Australia, the sector’s peak body, is picking up on the emphasis both Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull and Opposition Leader Bill Shorten are putting on innovation.

In a speech to launch the statement, Universities Australia’s chair Barney Glover says the embrace of the future by Turnbull and Shorten is “a rare but incredibly important consensus on what lies ahead for this country with ideologically nuanced differences on how to get there”.

“Both major political parties have decidedly planted their feet firmly in the future. We can all hold out hope that the next federal election campaign will be an optimistic contest of ideas rather than a negative battle of wills and ideologies.”

Australia is in the early stages of a time of “seismic socioeconomic change – change at a pace and magnitude not seen since the industrial revolution”, says Glover, who is vice-chancellor of Western Sydney University.

To remain competitive and grow our competitive advantage “we must invest properly in research, innovation, skills and critically in research infrastructure. We face a stark choice. We either make this investment or we irreparably fall behind those that do.”

In critical areas, damaging symptoms of neglect and under-investment are apparent, Glover says. Australia is number 17 in the world for innovation on the 2015 Global Innovation Index, and 29th out of 30 in the OECD’s ranking of business-university collaboration. Australia is the only OECD country without a national research and innovation plan.

Australia has dropped from sixth place to second last (24th out of 25) of the advanced economies for the share of GDP invested in tertiary education. In 1995, public investment was 1.2% of GDP; it was 0.74% in 2011. The OECD average was 1.13%.

With an innovation statement from the Turnbull government due before Christmas, Glover says it needs to invest in a major technology and innovation program; establish an innovation board including government, industry, university and other research community representatives; and create a student innovation fund to encourage undergraduate entrepreneurship.

Universities Australia commissioned Deloitte Access Economics to quantify how universities contribute to national prosperity. It found:

  • the university sector directly employs more than 120,000 staff and supports the education of almost 1.3 million students;

  • the sector contributed about A$25 billion to the economy in 2013, accounting for more than 1.5% of GDP;

  • international education is Australia’s third largest export and largest services export, generating revenue of $18 billion in 2014-15, with higher education producing about two thirds of this revenue; and

  • the value that university education added to Australia’s productive capacity last year was $140 billion. Australia’s GDP is about 8.5% higher because of the impact of university education on productivity.

Deloitte put international education in its predicted five most significant drivers of the next wave of Australia’s growth and prosperity, with the others being agribusiness, natural gas, wealth management, and tourism.

The government last week accepted that it could not get its plan to deregulate university fees – which had been due to start next year – through the Senate, and has gone back to the drawing board on university funding, promising extensive consultation on the way forward.

Glover says in his speech: “Universities must have a stable policy environment in order to plan and deliver outcomes in the nation’s best interests.

"It’s been nearly 18 months since the announcement of possibly the most far-reaching reform proposal in the history of Australian higher education. The ensuing debate and eventual legislative impasse has effectively left the nation’s third-largest export industry and leading service export without a structural and strategic vision for the coming decades.

"Worse, we are effectively in funding limbo,” Glover says. “This kind of instability is intolerable.”

But in spite of this, Universities Australia is optimistic that “a progressive legislative framework is not only possible, but achievable”. Glover does not outline the form such a framework should take.

Glover says that Universities Australia seeks a contract between government, universities and the broader community to provide “the basis for the innovative socioeconomic transformation universities are poised to enable”.

Listen to the latest Politics with Michelle Grattan podcast with guest, Cities Minister Jamie Briggs, here.

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