Universities dismayed at being left out of jobs summit

Writing in May this year just prior to the federal elections, Emeritus Professor of Accounting James Guthrie of Macquarie University warned that Australia’s public universities are in crisis and many of the stakeholder voices at the universities have been silenced.

This view seems to have been vindicated when the new Labour Government issued a joint press release by the treasurer and the prime minister on 11 July announcing a Jobs and Skills Summit (JSS) in Canberra on 1-2 September, which said that it will bring together unions, employers, civil society and government, but forgot to mention universities.

Latest job data shows that Australia’s unemployment rate has dropped to a 48-year low of 3.5% in June, with employers and state governments pressing the federal government to open up Australian borders more to allow skilled workers to come from overseas more easily.

While unions are concerned about migrants being exploited with low wages, universities are worried that demand in the high-end job market which universities traditionally filled could be sated by importing professionals who have been trained overseas.

‘Important role for universities’

Dr Matthew Brown, deputy chief executive of the Group of Eight (Go8) Australian elite universities, argues that the universities should have an important role to play in the upcoming JSS to help develop policies to overcome future economic challenges.

“Addressing workforce shortages will require a dual strategy of changes to migration settings and shoring up our domestic pipeline. The Go8 has a strong track record working with business and industry to address skills shortages in Australia’s workforce,” he told University World News, pointing out that in the past six months they have convened engineering and medical workforce summits.

“Both areas are critical to our future prosperity and well-being,” notes Brown. “Our universities educate 62% of the nation’s medical graduates and 42% of our engineering graduates.”

When University World News posed the question to Dr Jim Chalmers, treasurer of Australia, why universities are ignored for the forthcoming JSS, he denied that is the case.

“The whole point of this Jobs Summit in September (is about) creating opportunities, making sure that people can grab those opportunities as part of a high wage, high skilled, well trained productive workforce. What we want to see is business, unions, universities and community groups from every corner of Australia come together to address our big economic challenges,” he said in a statement provided to University World News through his media office.

In a paper published two years ago, Macquarie Business School’s Dr Lurion De Mello and Dr Prashan Karunaratne argued that, by not including university staff in the government’s JobKeeper Payment programme during the pandemic lockdowns, and the huge funding influx to VET (vocational education and training), it undermined the university sector’s contribution to upskilling Australia’s high-tech job market such as in health, engineering, finance, renewable energy and teaching.

Guthrie pointed out that more than 40,000 public university staff have lost their jobs in the past two years, when revenue from international students declined drastically, while students have been forced to learn online in increasing numbers.

University World News approached both De Mello and Karunaratne for comment on the forthcoming JSS and the role universities could play to help Australia’s job crisis.

“The focus of the previous and current government seems to be on the VET sector. Infrastructure, particularly housing and commercial projects were encouraged during the pandemic with various programmes such as HomeBuilder. It looked like we were to build our way out of the downturn,” noted De Mello, a senior lecturer in applied finance.

Providing high-level skills

“Universities provide high-level skills in the area of various types of engineering, education, science, health and business. The VET sector provides skills in some aspects, but not all.”

“Universities serve two purposes in society – research and education,” argues Karunaratne, a lecturer in actuarial studies. “Research by nature takes many years – establish a hypothesis, apply for funding, conduct research, analyse results, publish results – all of which can take around five years or more. Education takes at least three years for the shortest investment in a bachelor degree.”

He believes because the federal governments operate on three-year election cycles, politicians perhaps fail to understand the timelines of universities.

“The university sector by definition considers longer-term gains for its stakeholders, with a relatively smaller emphasis on short-term gains that unions, employers, and the government may consider,” he adds.

A report commissioned by Universities Australia argues that universities are at the heart of driving Australia’s productivity – through the highly skilled graduates they produce, leading to technological and social innovations generated through research. It says that a 1% increase to higher education R&D would increase the size of Australia’s economy by AU$24 billion (US$16.55 billion) in 10 years.

“If Australia is to become a leading centre of excellence in the area of information technology, health and commerce, we need our workforce to be trained accordingly and universities have an important role to play,” notes De Mello.

But Karunaratne is not that optimistic. “The past few treasurers and prime ministers have a less ambitious view of the Australian economy compared with Universities Australia,” he argues, “and governments hinge Australia’s economic success on what Australia is already good at: natural resources.

“A large part of the Australian economy revolves around natural resources, and the knowledge and skill necessary for these industries to thrive are less reliant on the university sector, and more reliant on the vocational sector,” he says.

In a radio interview recently, Chief Executive of Universities Australia Catriona Jackson argued that universities need to make sure that they are doing two things right.

Educating the creators of jobs

“We’re training enough essential workers so that we don’t have these skill shortages in the future, but also we’re training the people, we’re educating the people who will create the new jobs, the new industries of the future.

“If we have a strong university system and a strong vocational education system, we have a strong economy. It’s as simple as that.”

Karunaratne believes that Australia’s university system is far more egalitarian than it used to be – thanks to the model known as HECS (higher education contributory scheme), which is helping to upskill Australia.

“Anyone who meets the entry criteria can access university education with no upfront cost, with deferred payments that do not attract interest,” he points out.

“[You pay back] via a marginal increase in your tax rate, if one’s income were to rise above a certain threshold, arguably due to the benefit of the university education in question.”