Universities have a back door route to wielding political influence

3 June 2022

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Tim Dodd

Higher education is rarely a burning election issue and the debate about tertiary education policy and funding in advance of the coming federal poll is at an even lower temperature than usual.

When compared to the economy (interest rates, post-Covid inflation and skills shortages), health (Covid’s ongoing presence in the community), defence (the most unstable world order since World War II), sovereign capability (boosting Australian manufacturing) and the environment (fears about a changing climate), higher education ranks low in Australian’s list of priorities for the next government.

Accordingly, there is a very low chance of major higher education announcements in next week’s federal budget, and neither is much expected from the Labor side as we head full tilt into the election campaign.

Given the political climate, what can universities and other tertiary education providers do to get attention? There are plenty of issues in tertiary education which deserve addressing but, at the moment, there’s little chance of them surfacing and being given oxygen.

At least that’s the case if they are handled in the traditional way. For example, universities’ perennial calls for more research and teaching funding are guaranteed to be ignored at the moment.

However there is another way. Universities and other tertiary educators can make a convincing case that what they have to offer – educating people in high level skills that are in demand, producing research relevant to Australia’s national security, health and environmental needs – is exactly what the country needs.

We saw an example of this last week when two university groupings – the Australian Technology Network and the Innovative Research Universities, representing a total of 14 universities – focused on Australia’s skill shortages and committed to work closely with government and industry to provide sufficient student places in skill shortage areas and in regions where skills are needed.

Rather than ask upfront for more student places, the ATN and IRU jointly called on the next federal government to provide enough student places to give industry the required skills. They also committed to working with vocational educators and employers, including enabling students to work with industry.

This week the ATN is doubling down with another announcement – in concert with the employer association Ai Group – to push for an industry, university, government tripartite Skills Forum to solve the skills crisis.

It’s a smart approach which makes universities part of the solution to the challenges facing Australia. It makes it hard for the next government to ignore.