Why we should celebrate Australia’s universities

University of Sydney Chancellor Belinda Hutchinson AC today delivered a speech to the 2020 Australian Financial Review Higher Education Summit arguing the Australian higher education system is one of the best in the world.

Many speakers, when they are fortunate enough to be given a platform like this one, use the opportunity to give their take on the status quo and offer their solutions for improvement.

But not this one! Today, I have a simple message to give. The Australian higher education system is one of the best in the world. I am very, very proud of it, and I want to explain to you why you should be too.

You could be forgiven for having a rather different view if you believed some of what you hear our universities if you read some of the letters to the editor and online commentary, or if you listen to the shock jocks, and even to some of our politicians of both persuasions.

Some say our universities are rolling in money and a drain on the public purse. Some say universities are too reliant on international students who take places that should go to our domestic students. Some say universities’ staff do research on irrelevant topics with limited use in everyday life, and they’re not interested in working with business or industry. And of course, everyone knows that the really good universities are the ones in America and the UK. Or so they say.

Well, I’m here to show you that none of that is true. Our universities stand shoulder to shoulder with the best globally. It’s said that there is no honour for a prophet in his land. Sadly, those outside Australia appear to recognise the strength of our universities better than we do.

Firstly, let me address the very strong, comparative position of Australian universities globally.

I will then talk to the range of remarkable contributions our universities make, including: through responding to the COVID-19 crisis. I will also highlight some collaboration through research and innovation benefitting companies and the wider community.

I will explain how universities enhance the careers of many young Australians and international students; how universities drive employment opportunities and economic growth, and finally, how by working in partnership with government, business and community based organisations they are helping to set Australia on a path of recovery from the COVID induced recession. 

Global position of Australian universities

Let me start with our global position. It’s impossible to say how many universities there are altogether - there appear to be around 25 or 30,000. We only have 42, but seven of these - one-sixth of all Australian universities - are routinely listed in all the major university rankings systems as being in the top 100 in the world.

The Times Higher Education rankings rate 1500 universities. Of these 1500, 12 Australian universities - that is, just under one-third - are listed in the top 200. By comparison, only around one-fifth of all UK universities make that same top 200.  And even more surprisingly, only 6 percent of American four-year colleges are in the top 200. Yes, it’s true that Harvard, Oxford and Cambridge rank at the top, but once you get beyond the cream, our higher education system uniformly outranks those of other countries.

People often think of the Australian university system as simply an imitation of the British and American systems, but that doesn’t really bear close scrutiny either. Unlike America, for example, the vast majority of our universities are public, and very accessible - in 2019, one-third of Australians aged 20-64 had a degree, and because of our HECS system, most graduated without crippling debt.

While you may expect our bigger and older universities like Sydney and Melbourne to offer unparalleled breadth and depth, even our regional universities can provide education in a broad range of disciplines. They’re not constrained by a focus on regional expertise. Students can enrol in an Australian regional university to study everything from medicine and dentistry to oceanography and agriculture; from fine arts and literature to law and economics. Yes they have regional expertise like James Cook in marine systems and coral reefs but their focus is not limited. This is not universally the case outside of Australia.

Partnership with government, business and community organisations

Back some decades ago, it would not have been completely unreasonable to accuse universities of sometimes failing to engage with the real world. But that is simply no longer the case. Universities now proactively reach out to industry looking for opportunities to collaborate.

A Universities Australia report released this year about business-university partnerships found that in 2018 and 2019, almost 17,000 businesses had collaborated with a university. Every $1 invested in those collaborations returned almost $4.50 to the business, and the total boost to Australia’s economy from business-university collaboration over that time was $26.5 billion. As a result almost 39,000 full-time jobs were created. Yes, there is more that can be done through business-university partnerships, but there is simply no evidence to support characterisation of the sector as resisting opportunities.

One great example is our work with Qantas since 2012 to develop a flight planning system that is expected to slash CO2 emissions by 50 million kilograms and Qantas’s fuel bill by $40 million each year. The partnership really takes advantage of our capacity to bring multiple perspectives together to solve problems through our multidisciplinary approach. Similarly experts from the Charles Perkins Centre are also working with Qantas to improve the passenger experience through minimising the impact of ultra-long haul flying on the body. That might seem a long way from being relevant now, but believe me, when flights to the rest of the world resume, we’ll all benefit!

In another long-term partnership, with Microsoft , Sydney’s researchers are positioning Australia at the forefront of the quantum revolution. The partnership with Microsoft represents the largest single investment in quantum computing ever made in Australia. Based in the University’s Nano Hub, the Microsoft Quantum Laboratory is one of just five experimental facilities worldwide in which Microsoft has invested where academics and students work alongside Microsoft personnel.

Like quantum computing, additive manufacturing through 3D printing is a scientific and technological disruption that will spawn new industries. It could transform Australia into a globally competitive manufacturing hub. The University has a 10-year agreement with GE Additive to collaborate on establishing Sydney as a world player in digitally led metal additive manufacturing, driving commercial and economic opportunities, and promoting education and research in manufacturing.

The University has established a 1,000sqm Additive Manufacturing and Advanced Materials Processing research facility where GE Additive will invest up to US$1 million annually in research and development to accelerate the adoption of metal additive manufacturing in Australia and the region.

Another researcher investing in the future is Professor Thomas Maschmeyer, from our School of Chemistry, whose work has the potential to address one of the pressing environmental problems the world is facing. In his ground-breaking research, Professor Maschmeyer has developed a technology, the Catalytic Hydrothermal Reactor, to recycle plastic waste into new materials, chemicals or fuels. His start-up, Licella, has partnered with Finnish multinational and renewables leader, Neste. It’s a technology that has already attracted the attention of the Federal Government, and could soon help Timor-Leste become the first plastic-neutral economy in the world.

Universities’ mission - to enhance the lives of people, is not only realised through research: education is core to the role universities play in our communities. And the statistics show that there is no question that we add real value in the lives of our students too. 

Enhancing the careers of our students

A university degree and the skills that graduates develop accelerate career advancement. The rate of career change is increasing and with it the need to adapt to a changing labour market - in 2018, the World Economic Forum estimated that more than half the workforce will need significant reskilling and upskilling by 2022. And this was pre-COVID. We know that in times of economic uncertainty this need rises exponentially, and we can see this in our own domestic applications.

There is simply no doubt: university graduates have better long-term employment prospects than those with only secondary school qualifications. The Graduate Outcomes Survey released in 2020 showed that of the students who graduated in 2017, 87 percent had found a job within four to six months of leaving university, and more than 93 percent were in full-time employment by 2020. By comparison, according to government data from 2018, only 76 percent of Australians with year 12 qualifications were employed.

Graduates earn more, too. Once again, Federal government statistics reveal that in 2018, the median weekly earnings for those with no post-school qualifications was $842, while those with a bachelor’s degree were earning a median weekly wage of $1300 and those with a postgraduate degree received $1500 a week.  

Did you know that, according to the highly regarded QS World University Rankings, the Universities of Sydney and Melbourne outperform Oxford and Cambridge for the employability of their graduates? I’m proud to say that the University of Sydney has been the leading Australian university for employability for the last five years and is number four in the world - outperforming not only Oxford and Cambridge, but Harvard, NYU and Yale.

It is true that we are, as a sector, heavily reliant on international student revenue, and you will of course have seen how much of an impact the pandemic has had on the sector. But this in itself is a proof point for our system. We are a magnet for international students because of the quality of the education we provide, and even in these difficult circumstances, they have stuck by us. At Sydney, our enrolments for Semester 2 have far exceeded our expectations.

This international student cohort has changed the very nature of higher education in Australia for the better. We’re training future leaders from countries all around the world; we’re forging friendships and building understanding between individuals and nations, and we’re securing international visibility for Australian culture and values.  Our students, whether domestic or international, have their horizons broadened and learn how to deal with different cultures.  These are incredibly important skills for a country like ours that, despite globalisation, still labours under the tyranny of distance.

Universities have an important role to play in a future where everyone will need to engage more regularly in continuing and lifelong education. Our graduates need to be prepared to innovate and take on the challenges of our changing world.

I am often asked to events that celebrate or reward student innovation, and I’m constantly in awe of their capacity to come up with novel and inspiring ways of solving problems and their passion for improving people’s lives. This is where we see their ability to work in teams across multiple disciplines really paying off.

There are, of course, the big players like Nick Molnar, who graduated from the Sydney in 2012 and had listed Afterpay on the stock exchange before he was 27. Or Will Edwards, who combined what he learnt in his Master of Management with his interest in spirits to found the Archie Rose Distilling Company in 2014 - he’s already made Forbes’ 30 under 30 list. Or commerce graduates Audrey Khaing-Jones and Dean Jones, who shook up the way women consume clothes when they set up GlamCorner, fashion’s answer to the sharing economy. But there are countless other stories of expertise, enthusiasm and imagination, where students and recent graduates use their skills and knowledge to make the world cleaner and safer, to improve people’s health and to make ordinary life easier.

This year in particular we’ve seen how critical it is to have a workforce that can adapt to a changing and unpredictable environment. We’ve also seen evidence of the value that education opportunities, particularly in the post graduate space, can have in meeting skill demands that are necessary for our recovery at a time of a global crisis. 

We’re in the process of reimagining our postgraduate curriculum so that we can deliver quality programs that respond to student demand and the needs of business and society. Just as our staff have pivoted so successfully to online delivery this year, we will utilise this expertise to make sure our new postgraduate programs are delivered using the best models that blend in-person and online teaching, that are accessible and adaptive to need.

Today’s Summit is happening at a critical juncture in higher education, coming a week after the Job-Ready Graduates Package was reviewed by the Senate Education and Employment Legislation Committee and a week before the Federal Budget is delivered.

Driving employment opportunities and economic growth

As a sector, all universities have deeply felt the impact of this global pandemic, the uncertainty of enrolments, the effect on our staff and community and the worry about future research income. But universities are economic powerhouses, boosting the economy in times of trouble - something that governments have known in the past, and that resonates with us now.

Our relationship with the Federal Government is as important for them, as it is to us. The historians among you will know about the role the higher education sector played in the reconstruction of the Australian economy after World War 2, and it’s easy to see the parallels with our current situation. We are ready, willing and able to do the same for Australia as it recovers from COVID.

In what will give us some fascinating insights, researchers at the University of Sydney are undertaking a project to better understand the part our university played in post-war recovery, from 1943 to 1957. They are examining the impact of the Commonwealth Reconstruction Training Scheme, an innovative program that gave ex-servicemen and women, including my father, the opportunity to enrol at a university. Approximately 25,000 people took up the opportunity nationally to do a degree or diploma, and university enrolments almost doubled. Defined as "nation building", the scheme helped transform the idea of the ’public university’ and renegotiated the place of universities in Australian society. Knowledge and expertise were seen as fuel for post-war recovery and national regeneration.

The Menzies Government continued to support universities in the post-war era, introducing the Commonwealth scholarship scheme and supporting an unprecedented expansion of the higher education sector. In 1949, only 32,000 people were enrolled in Australian universities. By 1970, just one generation on, that number had increased fivefold.

At the University of Sydney, we were always confident of the value we brought to society, but we now have undeniable proof that universities are anything but a drain on the public purse. We are wealth generators for all of society. Universities contribute billions into our economy through support for local businesses, investment in projects, capital works and the creation of start-ups. What happens on our campuses has a positive impact across the whole country.

Last year, independent economists ACIL Allen Consulting found that the University of Sydney had contributed $5.3 billion to the NSW economy and $5.9 billion to the national economy in 2019. That contribution, from one university alone, helped support the equivalent of more than 35,600 full time jobs nationally. And those are jobs across the whole economy, in retail, construction, tourism, real estate and hospitality.

Every dollar spent on research at our university generated nearly $8 in GDP, and research activities from just 2019 alone were set to add close to $2.2 billion to the national economy. At the same time, contrary to what many think, we receive only 30 percent of our funding from the government, down from over 80% in the 1990s.

Just a few weeks ago, when appearing at the Senate Committee on the Job-Ready Graduates Bill, the University of Sydney’s Vice-Chancellor, Dr Michael Spence, said this:

"Australia has one of the best higher education systems in the world... That is an amazing resource as we enter an age in which knowledge and information is going to be the currency of success in the competition between countries. ... That is a national treasure that we should be supporting."

I couldn’t agree more.

The University of Sydney, and the university sector as a whole, seeks to work with the federal and state governments, together with businesses and community-based organisations, to rebuild the nation’s economy. Together, we can create jobs, develop sovereign capabilities, commercialise research and set Australia on a path to future growth and prosperity. 

I have had the privilege of working in some high-profile positions, in business and in the not-for-profit sector. I can honestly say this is the most meaningful job I have had, because of what it means to Australia. Universities transform lives every day.

And, as Australians, we are blessed by an outstanding, world-leading higher education system. Be proud of it and speak up for it. The sector deserves your support and will repay it richly through its contribution to our nation.

Vice-Chancellor and Principal Dr Michael Spence said today that getting the University of Sydney back to full strength and contributing to our national economy was essential to Australia’s COVID-19 recovery plans.

Sydney has placed first in Australia and second globally in the Times Higher Education Impact Rankings, which focus on the twin issues of protecting the environment while addressing inequality through sustainable development.

The University of Sydney has moved up nine places in the prestigious Times Higher Education (THE) World University Rankings 2021. This jump in rankings is underpinned by our excellence in research, our teaching reputation and an increase in academic citations.


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