The role of universities in Australia’s future

“Public education in Australia is at an acute moment of drastic under-funding," University of Adelaide Vice Chancellor and President Professor Warren Bebbington has told a CEDA audience in Adelaide, speaking as part of a South Australian Vice-Chancellors panel.

“The gap between the cost of providing a university education and the public provision is widening and the most chronic part of it is the under-funding of research," he said.

“Australia sits at the bottom of all the OECD’s relevant measures of public funding for research. At the same time, the new Prime Minister wants more university–business collaboration and more innovation. But is simply cannot come through any further incursion into research grants.”

When it comes to improving the university–business collaboration and innovation, Professor Bebbington identified three major obstacles the sector faces in Australia:

  • “Australia has very few large companies that universities can do R&D business with. The world of business in Australia is dominated by small companies, many of whom have no interest in R&D at all.
  • “There is too little venture capital, especially the kind that’s prepared to take risks.
  • “And, Australia has a lack of competitive R&D tax incentives for interested companies: why would you do R&D in Australia for 46 per cent tax concession when you could do it in Singapore and receive 400?”

Flinders University Vice Chancellor and President, Professor Colin Stirling, praised Australian universities’ success to date despite low research funding.

"Half our universities sit in the top three per cent of the world’s universities despite being at the bottom of the OECD tables for investment in research funding," he said.

“But, it begs the question: what might happen if we invested a little bit more?

“The US, Japan, Singapore and South Korea are all increasing their funding to higher education with ambitious goals and targets.

“What are we doing? The most recent Federal Budget that anticipates the Higher Education Reform Bill is cutting funding to Australian universities by 20 per cent.

“We need to talk less about the cost of higher education and more about its immense value.

“Education is about the transformation of how people think. It’s not about the information you store – it’s what you do with it.

“Being able to understand, comprehend, analyse, assess, process and make predictions of the unknown are the skills people get from research, and that’s what future university graduates will need to flourish in the new world of continuous disruption and change.”

University of South Australia Vice Chancellor and President, Professor David Lloyd, said better clarity was needed on what Australia wants to achieve.

“Innovation is now the buzz word of the day, which would be a good thing if we had decided what we wanted to achieve,” he said.

“We want to have our innovation cake and eat it too – we just don’t know how were going to make it or what flavour it should be.

“For example, do we want more start-ups? They require innovative people, investment, venture capital … Or do we want greater productivity? Improved competitiveness? Better IP generation, better IP capture, or better IP transfer? They’re all different things.

“We need entrepreneurial education … but should it start in Reception, Year 12, or when people enter the University sector?"

“Ultimately, we need certainty about what outcomes are wanted, clarity of thought that leads to policy clarity, and (ideally) a joined-up approach.”