National Press Club speech - July 2022

This speech was delivered to the National Press Club on 6 July 2022 by Professor John Dewar AO, in his capacity as Chair of Universities Australia.

"Thank you to the National Press Club for hosting Australia’s universities today.

I would like to acknowledge the Ngunnawal and Ngambri peoples on whose country we are meeting and pay my respect to their elders past and present.

This being NAIDOC week, I want to reaffirm the commitment of every member of Universities Australia to walk together with Indigenous Australians to achieve meaningful change. On our campuses and off them.

Every year in the last week of February, hundreds of thousands of young people head off excitedly to Orientation Week at university to begin their journey to adulthood.

Others slightly older, begin university courses to pursue new interests, gain new qualifications, maybe make a second start in life.

They have one thing in common: People are proud of them.

Grandparents, parents, partners, children.

You hear it all the time wherever you go… at the next table in the café… in the lift at work… at dog walk time in the park…

“My kid’s got into engineering.”

“Mine’s going to be a nurse.”

“My husband is giving law school a go.”

“My granddaughter’s doing a PhD.”

And for every proud grandparent, parent, partner or child, there’s a relieved employer who can now fill a vacancy in their manufacturing business, hospital department, aged care home, or school… Filling those advertisements that say:

“Maths teacher wanted.”

“Country town needs GP.”

“Are you a qualified software engineer?”

Australia’s universities aren’t perfect. I accept that. We cop our fair share of criticism and fair enough.

For example, in recent times some universities have failed to pay their casual staff properly – something that clearly should not have happened and which all universities must address as a matter of urgency.

We can do better. We will.

But in recognising and rectifying our mistakes, we mustn’t overlook the big positive story and the pride I’ve just spoken about.

People are so proud to say their loved ones got into university because they know that a university or vocational education will help them achieve their potential and set them up for a fulfilling career, with greater job security, and higher income.

During their own lifetimes, the parents and grandparents of today’s undergraduates have seen the old economy, with its millions of secure jobs on assembly lines or supermarket checkouts or typing pools, wiped out and replaced by jobs demanding trade qualifications and degrees – sometimes postgraduate degrees.

So, they’re not only proud – they’re relieved.

Employers also appreciate what universities do. They depend on us, heavily.

Surveys of business show, time after time, that employers rate highly what our graduates bring to their workplaces – not just immediate job ready skills, but broad conceptual skills as well.

Whether their new employees have studied engineering or science or the law or the liberal arts, employers value their capacity to think broadly and creatively. And they tell us this all the time.

The students and graduates themselves know the value of their qualifications. Especially those slightly older ones who may have left school early and know what it’s like to be part of the unskilled job market.

Personally, I always love going to graduation ceremonies for nursing students at my Mildura campus. Over and again our graduates from that campus, mostly women, many the first in the family to go to university, tell me a similar story… of how obtaining their nursing qualification allowed them to gain a secure a valued job where they can contribute to society.

It’s life transforming.

It makes me proud to be part of the university world too.

The fact is, the importance of universities is going to continue to increase. Especially their economic importance.

According to the National Skills Commission, a million new jobs are going to be created in Australia in the next five years.

More than half – 53 per cent – are going to require a bachelor’s degree or higher.

And more than nine out of ten will require some form of post-school education.

The blunt truth is this. To get a good job these days in the major areas of jobs growth – like IT, health and STEM – you will need a university or vocational qualification. Full stop.

As last week’s Census demonstrated, universities have participated in a major transformation of our nation in recent times.

The millennials, who now outnumber the baby boomers, are the most highly educated generation in history. This march of the millennials has made our nation almost unrecognisable from a generation or so ago.

When I and many of you were 18 years old, only a very small proportion of people had a university degree. In the late 1960’s it was just one per cent of Australia’s population. By the early 80’s it was still only six per cent. Most of them men. Often from similar backgrounds.

What a different story today. Australia has never looked back.

Once the preserve of a tiny minority, university is now an expectation for many.

Universities are no longer bastions of privilege; they are engines of opportunity.

Not elite, but democratic.

And again, the numbers are compelling.

As of May 2021, 31 per cent of Australians between the ages of 15 and 74 had a bachelor’s degree or higher. Nearly a third.

And the proportion is rising fast – because the younger people are, the more likely they are to obtain a degree.

In 2021, 44 per cent of people aged 25 to 34 had a bachelor’s degree or above.

For young men, who historically have had more options in the trades, that figure was 37 per cent.

The really amazing figure, though, is what’s happening with young women.

Last year, a significant milestone was reached. 50.3 per cent – more than half – of all young women aged 25 to 34 now hold a bachelor’s degree or higher. That’s up from just 26 per cent in 2001.

That’s almost a doubling in just 20 years.

At my university, La Trobe, 65 per cent of all our students are women. Almost two thirds.

Think about what these numbers mean.

They mean a young man is many times more likely today to be a graduate or a skilled tradesperson than his father was.

And that a young woman is more likely to have a degree than to not have one. More likely to have a degree than not have one.

University education is becoming the norm. For young women it’s already the norm.

A quiet economic and social revolution has occurred, built on the hard work of students and scholars across the nation. A quiet revolution made possible by Australia’s world-class universities, working in partnership with clear policy direction and intent from government.

This has delivered real equity gains as well, with huge rises in the number of Indigenous, low socio-economic, people with disability and remote and regional students.

And with so many Australians now having a direct life stake in our universities – the time has come to renew them.

People know the importance of our universities and want their government to act to improve them.

The reason is almost too obvious to state: without our universities, our economy would be sunk.

Every industry, from mining to health and IT would struggle to operate. Especially now, in the middle of a major skills crisis.

In almost every industry sector you will find major partnerships with Australia’s universities to keep the pipeline of people and research flowing. But more are needed.

In our submission to the Productivity Commission’s inquiry into productivity earlier this year, we set out the main facts.

Our university-qualified workforce makes our economy 185 billion dollars– or 8.5 per cent – larger than it otherwise would be.

For every dollar we invest in university teaching, we get three dollars back.

For every dollar we invest in university research, we get five dollars back.

In fact, if we could lift investment in higher education research and development by just one per cent, we could lift productivity and increase the size of Australia’s economy by 28 billion dollars over ten years.

And universities support more than 250,000 jobs every year.

And before the pandemic, international education brought in 40 billion dollars per year in export income.

Now due to the downturn, it is 22 billion dollars, but international education remains our largest services export industry and our fifth largest export industry overall.

So, universities’ contribution to Australia’s prosperity is clear.

And obvious at the local level.

Where there is a university, there is work for locals. And lots of it. Administrators, security staff, cooks, cleaners, baristas and IT technicians… we employ them by the thousands.

Along with the local hospital, universities are often the largest employer in their towns.

The role of universities is particularly obvious in the regions, especially those with economies and communities in transition, in need of new skills and careers for their people.

This is not to mention the health centres, the sports grounds, the cinemas, the theatres, the music concerts, the public lectures and other facilities and services that universities happily make available to the public. We openly welcome people onto our campuses.

After all, they own them.

And when disasters and crises hit, universities always step in to support the people living around them.

During the floods earlier this year, Bond University offered trauma counselling for free by putting their psychologists in training to work.

Southern Cross University’s Lismore Campus acted as the primary evacuation centre for the region, with more than 1,000 people gathered there at one point.

The University of the Sunshine Coast turned its stadium into an evacuation centre for stranded travellers and locals forced out of their homes by the rising waters.

And right now, universities are supporting their communities through this latest disaster.

During the COVID-19 pandemic, our health faculties and medical schools provided the expert advisers our governments relied upon to keep people safe and turn the tide on infections.

Our researchers, working quickly together with researchers from around the world, helped develop the vaccines we so desperately needed.

Right now, with the nation in the grip of major shortages of teachers and health professionals, we’re training the vital staff of tomorrow and are eager to help even more.

To put it simply: Australia’s universities can no longer be thought of somehow as set apart from the national community that supports them.

We are part of the community…

We serve the community…

We are part of the national fabric and essential to our nation’s economic future.

Right around the country, universities are enmeshed in the operations of business, conducting research and development on future products, processes and systems.

New drugs, new drought resistant seeds and farming techniques, new sustainable power generation technologies… even helping elite sportspeople to overcome injuries faster…

So, when your team’s ruckman or goal shooter returns early from that Achilles strain, you probably have a university sports science faculty to thank.

This is what we do.

It makes our country what it is, helping Australia punch well above our weight in the worlds of science, business and the arts.

Consider the pressing issues of today, such as climate change, national security, and inequality.

Our universities are at the forefront, providing the answers…

…educating the engineers who will construct the new grid…

…building goodwill with our Pacific neighbours and enrolling their leaders of tomorrow…

…building Indigenous opportunity and cultural understanding.

Almost every important issue that confronts our nation needs university-educated people and university-led research.

The role of universities in just about every aspect of our national life is immense… and urgently needed.

So, I want to put a simple proposition to you.

If we neglect our universities, Australia is in trouble.

Deep trouble.

But if we support them strongly, our nation will thrive.

We will be more prosperous…

More sustainable…

More secure…


More equal…

And more respected in the world.

In short, universities are the best long-term investment Australia can make.

Today our universities are reaching out a helping hand. We want to be partners in building a better future for the country.

After all Australia has been through in the last few years… and after all our universities have been through… this definitely feels like the right moment for a thorough reset for the country and the sector.

Now is the time for optimism and clear thinking.

As Chair of Universities Australia, I believe our purpose is to strive for a thriving, vibrant and internationally competitive university system that will underpin Australia’s social and economic prosperity and create opportunities for all Australians – whether they go to university or not.

We cannot have a prosperous and strong community without a strong, competitive university sector.

However, there are several policy issues we need to sort out as a matter of priority.

The first is additional student places.

The National Skills Commission and the 2021 Intergenerational Report are clear on this need. Over the next five years more than 600,000 new jobs will be created that will require a bachelor’s degree or higher.

Just last month, for example, Victoria and New South Wales announced an extra year of free pre-school education for every child.

Each of those states is going to need at least an extra 10,000 preschool teachers to turn this into reality. Universities are waiting to help.

The other factor driving the need for more university places is simple demographics.

The Costello baby boom, created after the then Treasurer asked us to ‘have one for mum, one for dad and one for the country’ has worked.

By 2027, there will be 120,000 more young Australians aged 17 to 19 than there are today.

To maintain the supply of graduates at the level Australia needs, we estimate that the number of university places will need to grow by a total of 46,000 to 2027.

We are pleased that the Albanese government has committed to an extra 20,000 places in the next few years, but this is a one-off, we need a longer-term solution.

Australia’s population will continue to grow and demand for higher education will continue to increase.

The previous Government’s Job Ready Graduates package – combined with the 20,000 extra places – provides for some of the growth Australia needs.

Nevertheless, we estimate that just taking into account the impact of projected population growth, the university system will be three per cent short in 2027.

This equates to about 19,000 places. This is before we even consider future growth in demand for a highly-skilled workforce.

Without skilled workers our productivity suffers. When national productivity falls, our living standards also fall.

We need to ensure that supply of university places keeps up. We can’t let these young people down and rob them of their aspirations.

A surge of young people is coming through while we have an urgent skills crisis. The answer is a no-brainer: pair them to the skills shortages and the problem is potentially solved.

Australia urgently needs more graduates and more people quickly upskilling through things like micro-credentials. All of which universities can design and provide.

The crunch is on. Whether it’s teachers or nurses or many other essential professions and occupations now in short supply, universities and VET institutions can help.

We know these issues are high on the new Government’s agenda, and we will be bringing practical solutions to the forthcoming Jobs Summit.

The summit is a significant opportunity to attack that big skills crisis in partnership – to design solutions together – to ensure that every Australian has the opportunity to do their best and make their best contribution to the nation.

Working together, governments, employers, unions, the community and higher education and vocational institutions can deliver results for every Australian.

A second and absolutely crucial priority for our country is producing the ideas and the products of the future. The jobs and wealth of the future.

Australia is lagging, dropping further behind.

Leading innovation nations now invest significant proportions of their Gross Domestic Product in R&D. Israel 5.1 per cent. South Korea 4.6 per cent. The United States 3.2 per cent. Just to name a few.

Across the OECD that figure is going up. But in Australia, it’s going down.

Overall research and development spending, as a proportion of GDP, declined from 2.5 per cent in 2008-09 to one point seven-nine per cent when the last figures were collected in 2020.

It’s not surprising therefore that national productivity has slowed.

This investment decline must be turned around as an urgent national priority.

COVID-19 laid bare the fragility of our research funding system. Universities are funding an increasing amount of the nation’s research effort.

Industry and government investment has not kept up. This leaves Australia exposed when those university funding sources are hit by a global pandemic.

As part of this discussion, we need to ensure that major granting bodies, such as the Australian Research Council, is robust and transparent in all it does, with merit and peer review at the heart of its grant selection process.

And we need to ensure that we are funding the full range of research, from curiosity-driven basic research that supplies new ideas and new knowledge, right through to research that can be translated for public good or commercialised.

Right now, Australia spends 35.9 billion dollars on all types of research but only 2.83 billion dollars on pure basic research. Without pure basic research we are stopping the supply of new ideas to translate into new products, applications and services.

This makes us dependent on others to supply those ideas. That’s not a place Australia should be.

So, we stand ready for a mature, informed discussion with the community and Government, about ways to best ensure the health of the research system via consistent investment.

Finally, in the middle of 2020, the Morrison Government delivered a very significant package of changes to the way and level at which universities are funded – the ‘Job Ready Graduates’ package.

Reeling from the impacts of the virus, the community may not have absorbed just how profound this set of changes was.

There were some good parts to it, like the return of grant indexation.

But there were others far more challenging in their effects. Total funding for teaching was reduced by six per cent on average, and the last remaining connection between research and teaching was cut.

It’s too soon to gauge the full impact of Job Ready Graduates. The package is a big and complicated one. Conditions have changed. It’s likely that changes to the policy framework will be needed to enable universities to keep delivering what students, employers and the nation need.

So, we look forward to a review of Jobs Ready Graduates this year and to working with the Albanese Government through that process.

The case for investing in Australian universities is strong indeed.

We are the future for young Australians…

We are the future for families…

The future for jobs…

The future for prosperity, with equality of opportunity…

As well as the necessary foundation for a more secure nation.

Universities have transformed our nation and our society. Spreading opportunity. Making our democracy live up to its promise of greater social equality.

And as the proportion of Australians with university qualifications builds year on year…

…and we move steadily closer to the situation where more Australians are tertiary educated than those who are not…

…the 19th- and 20th-century idea that universities are far off places, with high walls, closed off to the average person will become increasingly impossible to maintain.

It’s a fiction that has had its day.

Universities are already part of the national fabric. Part of average Australians’ lives.

They’re in our regional cities and country towns. They’re scattered throughout our suburbs. You can walk into them in office towers on the main city streets. You can log into them from your living room or your phone.

So, when we make this plea to you… INVEST IN UNIVERSITIES… their teaching… and their research… we’re not asking you to invest in some abstract, far-off entity.

We’re asking you to invest in the Australian people, their suburbs, their towns and their cities. We’re asking you to invest in Australia’s future.

Australia has passed a tipping point. Universities are mainstream.

The Australian people know the worth of their universities to themselves, their families, their communities and the nation. And they expect the country to support and fund them accordingly.

So, support our universities so they can help the Australian people construct a better future.

Give universities the tools we need, and we will help Australia do the job."