Universities must be funded to up-skill the population in order to make Australia more competitive, a CEDA audience was told in Adelaide.
The forum heard that policy makers had mis-stepped by cutting $2.8 billion from university budgets and student support between 2012 and 2014, given the need to up-skill the population.
Incoming Chair of Universities Australia and Vice Chancellor of James Cook University, Professor Sandra Harding said Australia's expectations around higher education have changed and a highly skilled workforce is required for our productivity and innovation.
"There was a time only a generation ago when we did not expect everyone to have a full high school education," she said.
"We know now that it is absolutely critical that we have a highly educated and highly skilled population. We know that it adds to productivity and it's important for innovation.
"Australia ranks 25 out of 29 OECD countries in terms of public investment in tertiary education as a percentage of GDP and I'm not certain that that's where we need to go or where we need to be."
The forum heard up-skilling was particularly critical in South Australia where the manufacturing industry is under pressure and needs to transform into advanced manufacturing to survive.
The recent round of funding cuts, to offset the Federal Government's school funding reforms, had compounded the challenges of uncapping university places without funding increases to support new students - particularly those from non-traditional backgrounds, Professor Harding said.
The forum also heard:
Professor Harding said removing regulation was important for the sector.
"We are the most over-burdened, over-regulated sector," she said.
"Fully acknowledging that to the extent to which we do receive investment we should be accountable - no one is denying that...but at the end of the day what we can't do is be completely stymied by red tape."
Flinders University, Vice Chancellor, Professor Michael Barber said universities needed to engage better with business to meet the needs of the State's changing economy and, to this end, Flinders University had invested $120 million in an advanced manufacturing hub at Tonsley Park.
"We've got to be able to fund international collaborations, we've got to be able to increasingly fund Australians to engage globally," he said.
University of South Australia, Deputy Vice Chancellor, Professor Richard Head said universities would need to work collaboratively and flexibly in different modes of research and teaching to provide adequate scale required in a global economy.
"I would have policy that drove and rewarded powerful collaboration between entities… I mean industry and universities and university to university," he said.
"As a small country, I think we should do things in a clever way… fund industry to fund me or fund me to work with industry."
Adelaide University, Vice Chancellor, Warren Bebbington said the future value of campus universities will be quality teaching in small groups, not producing academic content which could be downloaded from the internet.
"I think that much of the value we are adding in the future if we are going to succeed…will be, as it has never been before, about the quality of the teaching and the gap between us and the private providers," he said.
"And I believe it will be the path to the labour market.
"We now have to make our place of learning a place of work. We have to find much, much more effective ways of stitching up a better connection between us and employers."