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In the media: There’s a new tone in dealing with government, say Go8 universities

June 6, 2022

Vicki Thomson – The Australian – 6 June 2022

After a number of Canberra meetings last week with our new federal government and departmental officials, the tone of conversation has changed from “how did we get to this” to “how do we get out of this together”.

The mutual aim is to be a far more sovereign nation, one equipped with the skills necessary to deliver what is needed for the nation’s economy and for Australia to meet the challenges ahead.

For the Group of Eight universities (Go8), that word “together” is much welcomed. Finally we are being offered the opportunity to be part of the solution – which we are. Our research-intensive universities can and will deliver as asked for the economy and the community. It is why the Go8 proposed that an incoming government adopt a sovereign capability charter across every portfolio in the months leading up to the election.

That idea is now bearing fruit and Australia can only benefit from the issue being tackled finally, because becoming a more sovereign nation requires more than lip service. It requires some hard decisions, a dedication to change and strong partnerships, including with the community.

It also requires using our existing sovereign capability to better effect. Our world leading universities – which the Go8 members are – must be part of the solution. Our expertise is a resource that should be utilised for the community and government for the wealth of education, information and groundbreaking research outcomes they can deliver with confidence. It is after all what we do best and what we are here for, as became so clear during the Covid-19 pandemic.

The solutions we can absolutely deliver on, in partnership with government and industry, are firstly addressing head on Australia’s growing list of urgent workforce skills shortages, which extends to everything from engineering to doctors and IT professionals.

To encapsulate one example, who would have thought that in 2020, 74 per cent of the Go8’s IT graduation cohort comprised international students. It’s not a message that’s gelled with the community, but it is a fact that the majority of these graduates take our education and training back home. Their education and skills are not employed here. They either do not or cannot stay onshore because of a compromised visa system. Changing this outdated system is also part of the solution.

But it is critical that as we engage with international talent in building up our national sovereign capability in key workforce areas and industries that this also builds up regional capability through international engagement and the two-way mobility of people.

Every time we board a plane, we all accept the advice and understand the necessity of putting our own oxygen mask in place before helping others. It is common sense, it is not being selfish, or uncaring.

Similarly, it is not selfish or uncaring to strive to put Australia back on a more sovereign footing by ensuring we have the appropriate partnerships, policies and resolutions in place. It is common sense to do so and to do it as quickly as possible, to ensure we have a strong foundation upon which to build our education and research partnerships with the ASEAN nations, so critical to relationships, trade, security and addressing common challenges in the region.

The urgency and priority the new government places on this has been demonstrated by Prime Minister Anthony Albanese’s visit to Indonesia. Accompanying him on this important mission was Go8 chair and Monash University vice-chancellor Margaret Gardner – another strong signal that the government understands the value of and the critical role our universities can and will play in the region.

Indonesia has the capacity to be a truly valued and integral Indo-Pacific partner, especially in education and research. Government now has the fine balancing act of motivating ASEAN nations to work with us while at the same time ensuring our own oxygen mask is firmly secured, so we don’t let down our ASEAN partners.

The Go8 has been hamstrung for years – since the closure of the Australian Workplace Productivity Agency in 2014 which had a singular focus on forecasting the skills we must concentrate on delivering at high quality and in the quantum required to meet Australia’s needs after each graduation year. After all it takes at least four years to educate a specialist engineer and a decade to fully train a doctor, and we need them here and now.

Educating and delivering a nation’s required workforce takes planning, and while we have done our best, the reality is that it has not been possible, and we are now experiencing the fall out.

The Go8 welcomes the government’s commitment to an Employment Summit in September. It is intended to be outcomes focused not a talkfest. There’s no time for contemplation. The time is now, and it is urgent. If the recent election has taught us anything, it is that the time is right to work together to find solutions and in partnership.

Universities are not the enemy; they are the answer to the challenges we face as a nation. It is in our universities that we will find the solutions we need. Early indications are that we have a government that “gets it”.