Unis deliver economic boost as well as skills

21 Aug 2018

The West Australian 21 Aug 2018 by Dawn Freshwater Professor

How do you measure and what counts as success? For some, it is reasonably easy — sales figures and KPIs achieved, meeting budget and other industry standard indicators of performance. But until now there has been no definitive measure of the dollar-figure contribution our top universities make to the community.

The Group of Eight, which represents Australia’s eight leading universities, have set out to quantify the contribution of Australia’s leading universities by commissioning a report from London Economics, one of Europe’s leading specialist policy and economics consultancies.

The report, released recently, provides a detailed picture of the contribution of Go8 universities to the Australian economy through teaching and learning, research, investment in goods and services and the creation of export revenues by attracting international students.

For the first time in more than a century of providing higher education to Australians, the report enables us to show just how significant our universities are to the country’s economy. Compared to their total operational costs of $12.4 billion, the contribution of the Go8 to the Australian economy in 2016 was estimated to be $66.4 billion, which is equivalent to a benefit-to-cost ratio of 51⁄2 to one. The University of WA’s contribution to the Australian economy in 2016, which would mostly affect our State, was $4.5 billion.

Go8 universities are committed to maintaining the best research quality and the report revealed our combined research activity contributed a total of $24.5 billion to the Australian economy. To put this in context, Australia’s offshore oil and gas industry is worth about $25 billion annually.

Focusing on the 2016 academic year, the report shows that Go8 universities employed more than 51,000 staff and taught more than 380,000 students, including 87,335 Australian students and 53,895 international students who were starting their higher education qualification that year.

It also shows that international students, through their fee income and other expenditure, supported 73,000 jobs in 2016 across all sectors of the Australian economy. This means, of course, that the current decrease in international student recruitment in WA, which goes against the national trend, is costing WA jobs in all sectors of the local economy.

Australian universities have always been committed to developing graduates who are equipped to deal with a changing world, and producing research which shapes our future, improves people’s lives and creates sustainable communities.

Since our foundation, more than a century ago, UWA has been an anchor institution in WA, working with industry to help build the State and its economy by providing research and teaching in areas such as agriculture, mining, engineering, health and medicine and the arts.

One of UWA’s most significant research projects is a 10-year collaboration between the university and the Australian and international oil and gas industry to develop a stable pipeline connecting offshore oil and gas fields to the mainland. This groundbreaking research has led to more accurate, reliable and cost-effective design of pipelines worldwide, providing safer and more secure energy supply in Australia and overseas. It has also strengthened Perth and WA as a hub of offshore engineering excellence, with WA firms supporting pipeline engineering designs worldwide.

This pipeline project is just one of many that our university has undertaken that fulfil our aim to serve our community and improve the lives of people — ranging from discovering that bacteria causes stomach ulcers and can be treated with antibiotics, to unlocking the secrets of the universe with precise atomic clocks, mitigating the long-term impact of spinal cord injuries and safely deterring sharks using biologically inspired technology.

As technology has changed the way we work and live, including the skills and qualifications needed by our graduates, our university has also adapted. Every day, students and staff at universities around the world are working towards a common goal — the betterment of humanity. The report gives those of us who work in higher education the opportunity to hold our heads high and feel confident that we are achieving that common goal — and that universities not only provide exceptional value for money, but as importantly, also have a significant and positive impact on every Australian.

Dawn Freshwater Professor Dawn Freshwater is Vice-Chancellor of the University of Western Australia

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