Posted: 16 Aug. 2021

Focus on Commercialisation, Research and Skills Gap as Higher Ed finds its way out of crisis

Higher Education has survived fire, famine and flood but will need to work with government to better collaborate with a view to improving commercial and research outcomes, and meet future skills gaps as it emerges from the challenges wrought by the pandemic.

The 2021 AFR Higher Education summit brought together a number of experts to examine the path forward for the sector hit hard by reduced international students, limited by border restrictions due to the pandemic.

University of Technology Chancellor Catherine Livingstone echoed Deloitte National Education Lead Colette Rogers opening comments in a panel session The big picture – the fault lines laid bare, saying the decisions made in the next 18 months aFre crucial.

Ms Livingstone told delegates there needs to be a meeting of the minds between the sector, government and business.

“It’s a good opportunity now to stand back and have that conversation about what the role is,” Ms Livingstone said.

“Then we can collectively and individually make decisions that don’t just optimise the individual institution outcome but also work towards optimising that role and purpose and hence the national interest.”

Deloitte Access Economics partner John O’Mahony said greater collaboration was vital to address the current challenges.

“The COVID-19 crisis highlighted how we can have a country that’s more driven by solutions, that’s evidence led, that listens to experts, that’s not just about politicking.

“I wouldn’t mind if we can take that spirit into the next couple of years.”

Mr O’Mahony said we need to recognise universities are very important economic assets… I think the government could be asking more from the sector about what benefits it’s getting.

Research done by Deloitte Access Economics has found that university research is not a cost it’s a big investment, with a $5 return to the economy for every one dollar spent.

Group of Eight CEO Vicki Thomson told the summit there was a need for a translational research fund in the same way as there’s a medical research future fund.

“It’s not at the expense of basic research. It’s not an either or, all of that research is very important but there is a missing gap here that we all need to, industry, government and universities need to work together on,” Ms Thomson said.

Ms Thomson said she did not see international students coming back in great numbers in the same way as pre-COVID any time soon.

Online education was not the solution, she said.

“Students overseas are not going to pay a premium in large numbers to have an international experience if they are still sitting in their countries.

“What are our priorities for our research? Because it can’t continue to be all things to all people. We can’t continue to do the depth and breadth of our research in the way that we’re funded.

“That will take some fairly tough conversations with government, industry and universities to ensure we still do the basic research we need to but we’re still delivering the research that industry and our economy need, that’s in the Agtech area, in the AI area in advanced manufacturing.

“That changed business model is not a neat, simple answer because it relies on so many moving parts…”

Mr O’Mahony said he had been buoyed to see a commitment to greater collaboration between the University of Sydney and UNSW recently, recognising competition had been holding them back.

“I think it also reflects the heart of the distortion of having our research effort funded by international students, I do feel like that could encourage university research that will lift their own rankings rather than just the overall research effort from the country as well.”

Ms Livingstone agreed collaboration on the research side was crucial but we have to be sure that in making these hard decisions and specialisation that we don’t lose niche capabilities.

 “You can’t have just one group or a small group focused on a particular discipline because we all know that many of the big breakthroughs have been made partly by accident and partly by different groups looking at the same question but coming from a different perspective.

“So specialisation is helpful but some degree but it can be damaging.”

Mr O’Mahony said there was a big digital skills gap in Australia, with an extra 300,000 IT and digital skills workers needed in the next five years.

“It’s important in principle to make courses attractive where jobs are in the future. The Australian economy is facing major skills shortage at the moment partly because of the international border closures so it puts an extra onus on universities to be doing their best to be creative and sklll graduates for the future.”

The panellists agreed face-to-face learning encouraged innovation and was much more productive than doing it online.

Getting students back to campus is a priority.

Ms Thomson said universities, whether young or old have been around for decades and centuries.

“They have withstood fire, famine, flood and I think they’ll withstand COVID frankly albeit changed.

“The short to medium term challenge is the financial, structural issues but I think we’ll come out the other end in a fairly positive way but different, fewer international students here in Australia, different ways of delivering our education, a different focus or a sharper focus on the research that we deliver… but I think we got some hard yards before we get to that point.”

Australian National University Higher Education policy Professor Andrew Norton said there’s a big demographic surge coming through and there was great opportunity in meeting the needs of this young cohort.

Mr O’Mahony said universities should also zero in on the need for ethical decision making going forward and a focus on life-long learning to capture people wanting to reskill. 

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John O’Mahony

John O’Mahony

Partner, Deloitte Access Economics

John O’Mahony, Partner, BComm (Hons) (USyd) is a Partner at Deloitte Access Economics in Sydney specialising in digital trends, innovation and the public sector. John has previously served as senior economic adviser to two Australian Prime Ministers, where he had specific responsibility for communications, infrastructure and innovation policies. He has also worked for the Australian Financial Review, the NSW Government, and in the University of Sydney’s Faculty of Economics and Business. John is the co-author of Australia’s two best-selling high school economics textbooks, Australia in the Global Economy and The Market Economy.