Name: Catriona Jackson
Occupation: Chief Executive, Universities Australia
Location: Canberra, Australia
Australia’s higher education sector has been hit severely by the pandemic. Some might even argue that the country has lost a hint of its sheen as a top study destination over the last two and a half years, when compared to study destination competitors.
Higher education in the country, however, is working assiduously to bring back the reputation and help the sector rebound and come back stronger. Universities Australia, the peak body for Australian universities held its first in-person conference since the pandemic took hold, earlier this month, in an effort to bring key stakeholders together to deliberate on key issues.
The flagship event in the Australian higher education space was attended by the who’s who of Australian universities, including, of course, Universities Australia chief executive, Catriona Jackson, who sat down with The PIE to discuss conference highlights and some key issues the sector is currently faced with.
Joined by university leaders and subject experts deliberating many pressing issues, Jackson tells The PIE she was very “pleased” with what the conference was able to achieve this year, when asked to assess how the conference went.
“Let’s not pretend that the last two and a half years haven’t been really rough for people all over the world and all over Australia,” she says.
“Let’s not pretend that the last two and a half years haven’t been really rough”
With participation close to “pre-Covid levels” and the fact that delegates came from all over Australia and the world, there was a real sign of the “desire to get back together” to discuss issues that matter, she notes.
Hearing from the minister for Education, Jason Clare, part of the new Labor government, was a significant highlight, according to Jackson.
Seeing “so much alignment” between the agenda and priorities for the government and the sector was the “real highlight” for Universities Australia as well as for the whole sector, she posits.
There’s “renewed optimism” with campuses again looking vibrant with students coming back, she continues, while acknowledging that there’s still a long way to go and “considerable work still to be done”, in the recovery process.
Something that has stood out during the pandemic was how “resolute, hardworking, and relentlessly committed” university staff and students had been, even in the face of immensely different and challenging conditions. She lauds the spirit of “getting on with the job” of the university constituents, that has been such a hallmark of the recovery.
Still, hurdles to the rebound efforts are extraordinary delays in visa processing, she notes, which has certainly not helped in either getting international students to Australian campuses or in solving serious skills shortages for the broader economy.
They are “certainly not welcome” – it is in fact “the last thing” that the sector needed – she states, but the government initiating “considerable” action to manage the situation, has been, as demonstrated in the conversations that Universities Australia has had with the Commonwealth government.
Another area of concern is adequate funding for research and initiating a systemic reset in how the research is funded.
“It’s certainly true that the Covid-19 pandemic laid bare the fragility of our research funding,” Jackson notes.
Currently overly reliant on international student fee revenue and thus vulnerable to international shocks such as the pandemic, Universities Australia has been advocating for increased government support, especially as universities’ contribution to the nation’s overall research output has increased.
She acknowledges that there are no quick fix solutions to the issue but solutions have to be found in the “medium- to long-term”. The right policy settings will need to be in place – something Universities Australia will continue discussing with the government on an ongoing basis.
It’s a must to keep Australia’s pedigree high, so as to “not risk falling behind” in the dynamic arena of research, she highlights.
Advice to government in the near to medium term centres around working hand-in-hand and providing consultation on the upcoming Jobs and Skills Summit as well as The Universities Accord, alongside other landmark policy frameworks, she says.
Another priority is regaining parity with pre-pandemic commencing student numbers, as Australia has lost some of its marketshare to competitor countries such as the UK, Canada and the US over the course of the pandemic. The 25% shortfall from pre-pandemic levels has to bridged as soon as possible, she says.
But Jackson also draws a very careful distinction in relation to Australia’s international education offering. In addition to having all the attributes that make Australia a sought-after education destination, its location in the Asia-Pacific is a boon. It means that students do not have to go to “the other side of the world” to study and could “become citizens of the region” in which they lived.
She also wants to see more international students encouraged to stay in Australia over the long term. The current 16% stay rate needs to rise to retain some of the best and the brightest, something that would help Australia regain and bolster its global competitiveness.
Australia has benefitted enormously over the years by having international students as the country’s ambassadors, she adds.
“The international students project has played an enormous role in the development of this country”
The “cross-fertilisation across national boundaries” of having international students in Australia, coupled with having Australian student study overseas through mobility programs such as The New Colombo Plan, has really strengthened Australia’s position at the heart of the Indo-Pacific.
“The international students project has played an enormous role in the development of this country and in enhancing the understanding of the kind of partnerships and collaborations which we can have with all of our neighbours,” she states, nodding to the benefit of Australia becoming a strong multicultural nation and in developing a better understanding of its neighbouring societies.
Asked what steps would Universities Australia be taking to drive policy change on the key themes discussed in the conference, going forward, Jackson says the peak body would continue “advocating to government on policy settings, regulatory settings, and funding settings” for the sector.
Increased university places for the demographic rise expected in 2024/25, in being able to offer the “excellence of university education” to every Australian student regardless of “where they come from”, and making sure that there is “equal opportunity in access” to university education for all Australians, are on the lines of the priorities outlined by the minister and those also highlighted by the Universities Australia chair, John Dewar, during the conference.
She adds that reducing bureaucratic and procedural overlaps is a priority for minimising drain on resources and for enhancing productivity, and that research translation and research commercialisation was another area of high importance.
Flexibility for students pursuing their university education and/or vocational courses such as micro credentials options, is another. The goal has to be to enable students be fit for purpose to meet the demands of Australia’s modern economy, she concludes.
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