Universities more important than ever

Just a few weeks ago - which seems a lifetime away - bushfires engulfed large swathes of the country.

At the time, I described how universities like La Trobe were contributing to the relief effort, and how they could contribute to community and economic reconstruction.

We now face a global crisis in the shape of COVID-19. Universities' role as a vital resource for social and economic recovery is now even more compelling.

Why do universities matter so much at times like these?

The first reason is that we're educating those who will help address this crisis, especially in health disciplines. La Trobe has the largest School of Rural Health in Australia, and many of our students are engaged in supporting efforts to control the virus as part of their clinical training. The same is true of universities around the country.

We have donated PPE equipment to our partner health services, the teaching ward at our Bendigo campus is being used by the local hospital, and our engineers are helping regional businesses manufacture equipment such as ventilators.

We also educate the doctors, dentists, nurses, paramedics and allied health professionals who will work in rural health services once this is all over.

That is why we have ensured our students can continue to study uninterrupted during this period. It's essential to the economy that all graduates can collect their degrees at the end of the year.

In a herculean effort, universities have completely changed their methods of teaching to support this - and most did it in the space of a week!

In the longer run, it will be vital for universities to continue to recruit and graduate students.

If Australia enters a recession, we know that possessing a tertiary qualification is one way to insulate yourself against its worst effects.

Helping to reskill our workforce is one of the most important things universities will contribute to recovery.

This is particularly important in rural and regional areas, where fewer people have a tertiary qualification. If rural and regional communities are to thrive in the future, we must fix this disparity.

That is why, during this crisis, we are making some of our educational offerings available for free, or at a very reduced rate. We have made some online modules from our MBA available free - to anyone.

The program is taught and supported by alumni from our Business School. Thousands have already signed up to improve their skills; and successful completion will count towards the full MBA. Even better, it doesn't matter where you live.

We also aim to participate in the government's new scheme for short courses in the second half of 2020, with courses likely to cover areas including health, science and IT.

All will be studied online and completed by the end of the year. They will be available at a significantly reduced price and offer pathways into degrees next year.

Universities are important in other ways: we are doing research, including at La Trobe, to find vaccines for the virus and safe methods for their delivery.

This really matters because it is the one thing that will allow the economy to get going again.

Perhaps less obvious is the role of universities in stimulating innovation and new economic activity.

La Trobe's Accelerator program has already helped hundreds of entrepreneurs and small businesses develop their ideas and seek funding, many of them from regional Victoria.

A university can act as an honest broker between entrepreneurs, business coaches, academics and investors to bring ideas to life.

This is why we have teamed up with Sydney-based Investible to create the "'COVID-19 Industry Response Program" which will support small businesses, including those in regional Victoria, to adapt to new markets and new ways of working.

We take seriously the idea that we are here to make a positive difference.

It's one reason why La Trobe has just been ranked globally in the top five universities for Impact. It's in our DNA.

Universities are a vital national asset.

They stand ready to work in partnership with all levels of government and industry to help the country thrive.

Now more than ever, we have a lot to offer.

This article was originally published by Australian Community Media.

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