Lessons from the 2021 Universities Australia Conference

Posted: 06/08/2021

by: Dianne van Eck

In June, I travelled for the first time since February 2020, attending the Universities Australia conference in Canberra. Although there were fewer attendees, and sadly our Victorian colleagues could not attend at the last moment, it was a great conference. I’ve included a couple of my highlights below.

Countering Foreign Interference

The panel discussion included Prof Tanya Monroe, Chief Defence Scientist, Prof Alex Zelinsky AO, VC University of Newcastle, Prof Bronwyn Harch, DVCR&I UQ, Patrick Hallinan A/g Deputy National Counter Foreign Interference Coordinator, Dept of Home Affairs. Chair: Prof John Dewar, VC La Trobe.

The panel discussed the new Government guidelines, which will be ‘refreshed’ in the coming months in a collaborative approach between the sector and government.

UQ was cited as a best practice example outlining the steps and control measures to have in place to ensure a university is managing and reporting on all foreign interactions. These can be found in research projects, HDR students and staff appointments.

Government reporting requires accurate and timely information management, which is also essential for senior leaders to be aware of what is occurring in their university at any time. Risk mitigation is crucial.

Key Messages: Be proactive, share your stories and provide feedback to the guidelines.

Universities, Industry and Government: Working Better Together

The panel discussion included Prof Attila Brungs, VC UTS, Jeff Connolly, Chairman/CEO Siemens ANZ, Dr Cathy Foley AO, PSM, Australia’s Chief Scientist and Prof Joanna Batstone, Director Monash Data Futures Institute. Chair: Prof Peter Hoy AC.

The panel referred to statistics that show Australia sits far below the OECD average for overall gross expenditure on R&D. They noted that this underperformance is created by universities not looking outside and businesses not equipped to look in ‘over the university fence’.

The University Research Commercialisation Taskforce has a key objective: providing advice to the Minister on commercialisation priorities, including a scheme and funding models. Initiatives are fragmented across the country. Scale and focus are required to gain real and sustainable outcomes.

Key Messages: Commercialisation is a professional activity. Some people know how to do this well in universities, but most do not. Elements such as understanding the process, user interface, business model that works, policy and standards need to be brought together for a thriving ecosystem. Universities should focus on an area and bring resources together in a concentrated effort to produce results.

Future Universities: Equipping Students for the Changing World of Work

The panel discussion included Prof Pascale Quester, VC Swinburne University of Technology, Prof Iain Martin (Chair), VC Deakin University, Prof Gregor Kennedy DVCA University of Melbourne.

This group discussed the value of a university education from both an employer and student perspective. Employers want graduates who have discipline knowledge, can work with uncertainty, work in teams, and solve problems with incomplete knowledge. Students have less time, are part of the gig economy and many work whilst studying.

The co-creation model was discussed where internships are a standard part of a degree to ensure learners have real-world experiences. There is a balance required between foundation material and industry requirements.

A model has been developed in the UK – the degree apprenticeship model. This includes the industry partner in the design of the curriculum to produce graduates for that workforce.

Key Messages: Universities were asked to be creative, think about the content of programs, and graduate’s required skills and abilities for work and incorporate these into their degrees.

Opposition Address: The Hon Tanya Plibersek MP, Shadow Minister for Education

It’s always a delight to listen to Tanya at UA. She provides hope that with a Labor Govt, the HE sector stands a chance in Australia. She referenced the post WW2 boom in relation to the recovery from COVID-19; where jobs and housing were the keys to recovery. Universities played a key role in that recovery and reconstruction. Lessons learned from that period were that we needed more specialists and greater national research capacity. There was an unprecedented investment in HE at that time to grow research capacity.

This was contrasted to today, where the situation is quite disheartening. The Government’s refusal to fund universities during COVID meant thousands of staff, particularly casuals, lost their jobs. ‘Liberals are systematically trashing Higher Education with their attitude, legislation and budgets’. No other industry of this size was impacted as badly. The 2021 budget is equally disastrous for the sector.

Her promise if Labor wins the next election: To work with a 15-billion-dollar fund to help job creation and investment for business and industries. Researchers solve the world’s problems, and Australia has some pockets of great research. These need to be expanded.