Higher Education: Article by Catherine Livingstone

This is an edited extract of a speech BCA President Catherine Livingstone delivered at the Universities Australia Higher Education Conference in Canberra. It was published in The Australian Financial Review on 16 March 2015 under the title 'Self-examination key in new tertiary era.'

While the link between knowledge and economic prosperity may not be unequivocal, the counterfactual certainly is.

Universities need to recognise themselves as being a critical part of the knowledge infrastructure that underpins Australia's innovation system. Like physical infrastructure, knowledge atrophies if it is not maintained.

Research and development should be seen not as a discretionary "cost or flow" concept, but rather as an "investment in stocks" concept.

We know what happens when we don't adequately maintain our roads and bridges. Just because knowledge is less visible doesn't mean it is any less vulnerable to the consequences of poor maintenance.

How have we come to a point where a government feels it can use assets, publicly funded to the tune of over $2 billion, as a hostage in a political process? Where it is prepared to jeopardise over 1500 highly skilled research jobs and the continuing operation of 27 national facilities?

Shame on us.

That said, if the mindset in universities was "knowledge enabling new business models" rather than the "commercialisation of IP", would the economic value impact be greater?

Universities also need to ask whether their product is fit for purpose in the new era. We could be pure and say that a degree is all about education, not training - but, given scarce resources, do we really have the luxury of that distinction?

Is the product fit for purpose given the level of unemployment and underemployment among graduates, and the time it takes them to find their first job? Are we restricting people by having a rigid semester framework? Are four- and five-year degrees appropriate, with students not in jobs until they are heading into their mid-20s?

To ensure that the university product is fit for purpose for the new era requires a mindset shift on more than one level.

Firstly, universities need to view their product in the context of an education continuum which spans most of a person's life. If we undervalue any part of the continuum, we abrogate our responsibility as a nation to maximise the potential of both individuals and the nation overall.

This continuum is not operating effectively. Its parts are siloed, the barriers between them are rigid, and where pathways exist, they're difficult to navigate.

The stock of skills intrinsic to education need to be introduced and nurtured across the continuum, starting from primary and pre-primary.

The quality of the university product is predicated on certain input from schools. That means universities have a responsibility to look down the supply chain into schools and pre-primary. They need to advocate curriculums which will enable students to get the best from not only their university experience, but from whatever post-compulsory education experience they choose.

So why are we continuing to have the same conversation on STEM, around which we all agree, but still nothing happens?

Universities need to take responsibility rather than complain about the quality of students enrolling in their institutions. Why have prerequisites been relaxed or abandoned? Why do we have an ATAR system which is systematically gamed by teachers and students? Where do school teachers learn to teach?

The education continuum of which universities are a part requires a very different mindset towards vocational education and training (VET).

Are universities valuing the VET sector as a crucial, equally valued player - a sector we need in order to facilitate seamless employment transitions for people across their adult lives? It is antithetical to the new era for universities to be competing with the VET sector for raw numbers of students.

The second shift of mindset is seeing tertiary education as a market - a market with students at the centre - and designing it accordingly.

The tertiary education market has to be designed around students because it is their experience of it that will deliver on economic and social objectives.

Vice-chancellors' calls for deregulation come with a significant responsibility to make sure the value proposition is there for students.

Australia has developed an inspired scheme where people who are beneficiaries of tertiary education make a contribution through an income-contingent loan. This is the kind of debt government should maintain, and the Business Council wants it to be available beyond the narrow group of students who have access.

For government, it is a strategic investment in people's capacity to establish prosperous, independent lives. It's an investment that provides business and industry with the skilled people we need to stay competitive in a global marketplace.

We cannot afford to be having the same conversation in 10 years' time about the mismatch between the people the education system is producing and the people industry needs. We need to be thinking about the application of knowledge from the day a person starts to acquire it.

We need formal, permanent structures that feed information about skill requirements through to students, and help them plan for their careers right back in primary school.

We cannot continue with a system that leaves careers counselling in the hands of teachers who carry the responsibility on top of their normal workloads. There has to be a better way of integrating work and learning, and there is no doubt that it involves close collaboration between our sectors.

Have we pushed more and more students to complete secondary school and enter tertiary education, and missed a fundamental point about the interface between education and employment? Universities could take the lead in probing the question and potentially re-inventing this all-important interface.

When they are leading, the impact universities can have is nothing less than intergenerational transformation.