Opinion article

Safeguarding the future of Australian research and higher education

Group of Eight (Go8) CEO, Vicki Thomson, reflects on the importance of the higher education and research sectors to the Australian economy and the ways in which we can ensure their continued growth. 

Higher education and research are pillars of the Australian economy. However, recent funding cuts and concerns about Australia’s intake of international students reflect a lack of understanding about the economic importance of research and higher education and the factors that ensure their success.

The future of university education in Australia is inextricably tied to global rankings. Rankings are part of - depending on your stance - a vicious or virtuous circle.

Federal Governments have gradually reduced taxpayer funding of universities to the extent that Go8 members on average receive just 35 per cent of their funding from Government. International students provide much-needed funding to help plug the gap.

Let me dispel a popular myth: these full-fee paying students do not take domestic student places; they fund many of them, and they fund a high percentage of universities’ research. This is important, because all Australian universities must undertake research by virtue of legislation.

Research matters for other reasons too. Global ranking systems rate universities primarily by their research, not teaching, and these rankings are used by families from all around the world to decide where they will send their children to study. That is the circle.

Australia is making the most of the research-rankings-demand circle. Currently, seven of the eight members of the Go8 are ranked in the world’s top 100 universities, and Australia is on track to overtake the UK as the second most popular international student destination in the world, behind only the US. Our industry brings in 38 million much-needed dollars to the Australian economy.

But what if this does not continue? What if Australia loses access to many of the international students who, for more than 50 years in the Go8’s case, have funded research, boosted the economy, and helped build the rich multicultural society we all enjoy? What if this was all to be jeopardised due to factors out of our control, such as the current trade dispute between the US and China? The focus is on how the potential trade ramifications may spill over to Australia, but the fact is that the most significant threat is to our international education and research sectors ­- both of which are heavily reliant on the US and China.

The ramifications would be felt far beyond our universities. A recent analysis undertaken for the Go8 by London Economics revealed that every three international students studying at a Go8 injected $1 million into the economy. It also found that every $1 of Go8 research income delivered almost $10 in benefits to the private sector. The figures speak for themselves and highlight the critical relationship between rankings, research and international students - the vicious or virtuous circle.

Unusually for a first world nation, 63 per cent of Australia’s researchers reside within our universities. However, we forget at our peril that research is portable, it is created by minds, not machines.
Australians don’t think about research often, especially the fact that research is delivered by amazing minds within our community, not all of whom were born here. That is a pity because research is not only intrinsic to the funding future of our universities, it is integral to our community’s future. It drives jobs, growth and productivity. It saves lives and provides the latest technology. It is at the base of everything we wear, drive, watch, play, and much of what we eat and drink.

Research is an essential economic foundation and it all comes tumbling down if Australia cannot fund or take part in research while other nations plough ahead. It is the quintessential chicken and egg scenario. Universities cannot afford research without international students, and we cannot attract international students without globally ranked research.

Everything we have built with our students and our research is precious to us and to the nation. As the geopolitical security belt tightens around us and geopolitics and media affect our students and their concerned families back home, the future of higher education must survive the road humps. The nation’s future standard of living and global relevance depend on it.

A nation’s intellectual property (IP) wealth comes directly from its research results. Without IP, a nation is forced to depend on other nations for technological and medical advances. 
This is the question Australia needs to ask itself: are we happy to be at the whim of external, geopolitical factors for new medical treatments, clean water supplies and better energy solutions? Because make no mistake, these research advances will still occur, just not in Australia.

Our researchers are a true national asset. They are committed to their work and they are always striving to find solutions and make new advances. But they can do that anywhere, in the world’s top labs, and with far better equipment and more funding than we can afford to give them.

We should never forget that they are here by choice and choice alone. If we cannot fund them or if they are not allowed to work in their area of expertise, they will go. We should also never forget how much we celebrate that research has no borders. Research programs are comprised of trusted teams of the best of the best. We are proud to be part of that so often.

Consider the first detection of a gravitational wave. This effort took 1,006 scientists working across 16 countries in 83 different institutions! Research for the discovery was carried out the US, Brazil, throughout Europe, Russia, India, China and South-East Asia - and Australia.

We need to secure our research future so our researchers stay researching in Australia and not overseas. We need to maintain a vibrant international education sector. Anything less places the quality of Australian higher education and our economic future at risk.

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About the authors

Vicki Thomson

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Ms Vicki Thomson is the Chief Executive of the Group of Eight (Go8) – which is comprised of Australia’s eight leading research-intensive universities. She took up her role in January 2015. Prior to this, she was Executive Director of the Australian Technology Network of Universities (ATN). Ms Thomson’s diverse background covers print and electronic journalism, politics, issues management and the higher education sector. She has an extensive media, political and policy background and was Chief of Staff to a South Australian Premier. She is a Board member of the European Australian Business Council (EABC) and is a member of the Australian Government’s New Colombo Plan Reference Group.