Universities demand bold innovation strategy

Australia’s universities are calling for a bold new research and innovation investment strategy, arguing that it is vital to the economic transformation that the government and opposition parties both say the country must make.

The call was central to a pre-election policy blueprint released by Universities Australia – the voice of Australia’s universities – last Wednesday.

A “game-changing” national strategy for funding wealth-generating research and innovation is needed, yet Australia is the only OECD country without a national research and innovation plan, the universities body said.

In the policy statement, Universities Australia said with 40% of existing jobs tipped to disappear in the next 20 years, university education and research will be “vital to generate new jobs, new industries and new sources of income for Australia”, and a key part of that needs to be greater collaboration between industry and university researchers.

Professor Barney Glover, chair of Universities Australia and Vice-Chancellor and President of Western Sydney University, in the draft of a speech to the National Press Club, said: “To remain competitive and indeed grow our competitive advantage, we must invest properly in research, innovation, skills and critically in research infrastructure. We face a stark choice. We either make this investment or we irreparably fall behind those that do.”

He said there were “incredibly damaging symptoms” of underinvestment and neglect in these critical areas.

Australia sits at number 17 in the world for innovation according to the 2015 Global Innovation Index, and comes in at 29th out of 30 in the OECD's ranking of business-university collaboration, he said.

Yet Australia’s competitors were not sitting on their hands.

The UK, for instance, has allocated $3 billion to promoting industry-university collaboration over the next five years. Singapore increased its investment in research and development by 20% over the most recent five-year period. South Korea has set a target to invest 5% of gross domestic product, or GDP, in research by 2020.

Greater investment was therefore “pivotal”.

Radical rethink

The Universities Australia policy statement calls for a radical re-think and commitment from government to create the conditions for innovation and prosperity to flourish. These include:
  • • Investment in a major technology and innovation programme, similar to the UK's Catapult initiative, to stimulate economic growth and diversification in university-industry engagement;

  • • The establishment of an 'Innovation Board', comprising senior government, industry, university and other research community representatives, to provide strategic leadership in securing an integrated national research and innovation effort;

  • • The creation of a 'Student Innovation Fund' to encourage undergraduate entrepreneurship.
Glover warned against reducing the value of higher education to its economic benefits alone, but instead to also value inquiry and how knowledge itself is created, as well as the complex environment in which any economy operates.

In a wide-ranging speech he warned that Australia is in the early stages of a period of seismic socio-economic change: change at a pace and magnitude not seen since the industrial revolution.

“The centre of global economic activity is shifting towards Asia. The Australian economy is moving away from its dominant reliance on mining and resources towards an era where knowledge, skills and services are becoming our most precious commodity."

The enormous scale, mobility and competitiveness of the international labour market are transforming the jobs and job security of Australians and reshaping workplace productivity, processes and culture, he said.

Profound change

Technology was bringing about the most profound, disruptive change, he said.

He cited as an example of the disruptive power of technology the development of driverless cars, with implications for transport, urban design, emergency response, educational opportunity, healthcare and social interactions.

“Consider further that these are merely the potential domino effects of just one technological innovation. Now multiply this disruption by the many innovations occurring globally and across Australia as we speak. This is the reality we face.

“In times like these, our universities are at the vanguard,” he said. “For it is the responsibility of Australia's universities to ensure that we ask the right questions; map new paths; share the knowledge we have; nurture inquiring minds; and, in-turn build critical thinking. These characteristics are at the heart of our serving the public interest. This is what we do.”

The Universities Australia statement said the value of the stock of knowledge generated by university research was estimated at $160 billion in 2014. This is equivalent to almost 10% of our GDP and exceeds the entire value of Australia's mining industry.

Some 3.8 million new skilled graduates will be needed for the knowledge economy over the next decade, it said.