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In the media: Universities are critical to achieving productivity gains says Go8

March 22, 2023

Vicki Thomson – The Australian – 21 March 2023

Australia has just embarked on the most wide-ranging review of its higher education sector in over four decades – the 12-month Universities Accord process.

It seems somewhat serendipitous that, just as this is gaining momentum with its first round of consultations, AUKUS arrives. As we look to the future of an ambitious 40-year submarine build, crew and maintenance process, the likes of which Australia has never before embarked upon, it’s clear that the two processes are intrinsically linked.

AUKUS cannot draw its first breath unless our nation’s research universities can deliver the education, training and research capability needed to build, operate and maintain a nuclear submarine industry.

Symbiotically, AUKUS provides us – as we move ever deeper into what a Universities Accord must look like – with clear navigation to what our nation requires of us some 40 years into the future. And this comes on top of our traditional imperatives such as educating the next generation of professionals and world-leading researchers.

AUKUS, like the Accord, requires long term planning and vision. No longer can we rely on guess work and a bit of luck – AUKUS removes that option.

Our national security, like our economic prosperity and other challenges, is inextricably linked to the Accord process. There will be no people, or research, or capability unless we have a good hard look at how we position our universities.

And that is why the government’s Universities Accord is so critical to our future. It is one of the most important policy undertakings of our time and it will determine how Australia fares in every challenge we face now and into the future.

The Accord, as well as ensuring through its outcomes that universities can suitably support AUKUS, must deliver bold outcomes that deliver national productivity growth through university R&D, and ways to ensure our graduates can deliver economic growth solutions.

All this requires thinking outside of the box. We have been given a voice and we have a duty to use it. I have already used the word bold, and I do mean bold as it relates to tertiary education and research policy formulation. Nothing less will stand the test of time.

It is clear there will be no AUKUS research unless our universities are appropriately prepared and supported. And that requires commitment. We must not be constrained by any current settings. In the same way that relying on Collins class submarines for the future was the security world before AUKUS, so too today’s universities must be repositioned to function for the world that is coming, not the world that has passed.

Of course, it’s hard to future gaze what the economy will look like in 2053. But we do know one thing for certain – the research that is under way now and may not be realised for decades will be critical, as will the sharpened minds generated through our high performing universities.

We’ve missed decades worth of opportunities to support research in this country. And we have failed, at the highest level, to recognise the role of research in boosting our national productivity.

Indeed, the Productivity Commission’s landmark report released earlier this month was a missed opportunity and fell short when it came to any recommendations as to how we might, as a nation propel universities to add to our prosperity.

The commission claimed that attempts to quantify the link between education and economic benefit should be treated with caution “particularly when paid for by parties with a vested interest”.

The Go8 is happy to stand accused of vested interest. Our vested interest is the prosperity of the nation. We act, as we should, in the national interest at all times.

Where the Productivity Commission failed, the University Accord process must succeed.

Now is the time to take a bold ‘big picture’ approach to this challenge, to consider what we want our university education and research sector to look like in 30 years times.

Even with AUKUS, 2053 will throw up unknowns to tilt at future planning. However, what we do know is that we will definitely need to rely on both fundamental and applied university research to successfully navigate these unknowns. And we will need to deliver the higher-skilled employees to negotiate and thrive in a knowledge economy with vastly increased cyber and AI and space sector requirements on top of AUKUS.

As the Accord process moves forward and we embrace the appetite for reform, the Go8 is going back to basics; to remind ourselves of what we want to reform and protect in light of the significant teaching and research requirements that confront us.

Part of this back-to-basics approach has confirmed for us yet again how vital university R&D is to the productivity gains that deliver economic growth and higher living standards. Australia’s productivity currently sits at a 60 year low. We can and must do better and that can only come from government accepting they need their universities and their quality research.

Invoking the word bold, in coming days the Go8 will release a discussion paper explaining why Australia urgently desperately needs a National (and cohesive) Research Strategy and why that strategy must be underpinned by basic research.

The economy-wide benefits of research in Australia, while difficult to measure, are real. There is incredible unlocked potential in our universities. We just need to give those who thrive on challenges the backing and resources they need to find the solutions.

Successive governments have tried to back Australia’s ability – it’s been a catch cry for over two decades. The world has changed dramatically in that time. Rapid technological advancements have landed us in what is, for many, an unfamiliar environment. Who can say what the world will look like in 30 years but our best chance of predicting, preparing and shaping the future lies with our world class researchers. By truly backing their ability, recognising that basic research is essential and not a luxury and investing in it, being prepared to take a few risks safe in the knowledge that our public universities have the national interest and the welfare of the Australian people front and centre, is the key to opening up the world we want to leave for future generations.