The Australian by Vicki Thomson 15 August 2018
One of the oft-quoted challenges of the Australian university system — including the Group of Eight — is our historical inability to explain our value to the Australian community and government. As a result, our attempts are often misinterpreted as either spin or as code for “hand us more money”.
But there is a lot at stake for the nation in universities succeeding in this communication challenge.
Universities, and what they deliver for each and every Australian, must be taken more seriously, valued more sensibly, when so many other nations are forging ahead. Years of strategic investment have seen China emerge as a global powerhouse of higher education and research, charging up the international rankings in truly impressive time. Israel ranks 11th on the Global Innovation Index, well ahead of Australia at 20, despite having a much lower gross domestic product. Both are examples of what can be achieved with will, determination, vision and consistent government support.
In an attempt to set out the scale of the Go8’s value to Treasury and the community, the group commissioned London Economics, one of Europe’s leading specialist policy and economics consultancies, to carry out a forensic analysis of its contribution to Australia in 2016. This was the most recent data available and the first time such a one-year forensic analysis had been undertaken for the Go8.
Why London Economics? Part of the rationale was the fact that it is an overseas organisation — it has no vested interest in Australia and can therefore be said to be independent. In a similar exercise for the Britain’s Russell Group, London Economics was able drill down in a way that even further authenticated the universities’ contribution to Britain, and the work is said to have informed policy formulation since.
And so the Go8 members opened their books up to scrutiny, supplemented by publicly available government and private sector analysis. The results, delivered last month, provide an evidence base to assist policymakers in understanding that universities are a major contributor to both the national and state economies. In financial terms our universities are a worthwhile investment for current and future generations.
Australia can be proud of its track record in research discovery and its application — the first artificial pacemaker in the 1920s; medical application of penicillin (1939); cochlear implants in 1978; and Wi-Fi in the 1990s. There is potential to achieve much more with carefully placed investment in the research pipeline.
Let the facts speak for themselves, and consider that the Go8 members are indeed the nation’s leading research universities, and therefore deliver much more than their numbers suggest. But there are also 32 other universities in Australia that deserve to be treated with more economic respect.
London Economics has shown the total annual economic impact of the Go8 alone is $66.4 billion. Its research activity contributes $24.5bn. Its existence in five states and the ACT delivers a total of $19bn a year in salaries paid and services consigned from local businesses.
Every three international students educated in a Go8 university generates $1 million in economic returns during the course of their studies.
They generate an additional 73,030 jobs throughout the Australian economy.
One statistic in particular stands out. If research funding in Go8 universities were increased or decreased by $100m, the estimated total impact of Go8 research would increase or decrease by $1.01bn.
It is this level of detail that sets out the power policymakers have to harness the potential of the sector for the prosperity of the nation.
In furnishing government and the community with the London economics analysis, the Go8 is hoping to make larger strides towards being accepted as an economic asset. But there is more. We need to be understood as a community asset also.
In political parlance, universities are often seen as “acceptable losers”; there are no votes gained in handing us additional funding, nor are there votes lost in reducing it. No marginal seats will change hands on our behalf. We do not hold community sway in the way the Catholic schools do.
Yet is this really saying that the Australian community doesn’t value the contribution universities make to their daily lives — from doctors and nurses to engineers and architects, from roads and bridges to buildings and rail corridors and medical advances? That they’re not interested in discoveries or in learning more about how our world works and their own place within it?
I don’t believe that for a second. Every year our university open days overflow with excited young people looking to decide what their future career will be.
Every year our campuses open their doors to the members of community who visit our museums, attend our public lectures, compete on our sporting fields and participate in events.
But it is not enough for us to rest on our laurels. If the Australian community cannot see that it is universities that provide these things, then we haven’t explained ourselves well enough and we must do so with alacrity. The London Economics report is but one tool to help us do so.
And we will continue to do so. To government, to industry and to the public, until our role in Australia’s future is better understood.
Because — as the London Economics report shows — we have a key role to play in the future prosperity of Australia.
Vicki Thomson is chief executive of the Group of Eight.