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Interview

Belinda Robinson – CEO, Universities Australia

Belinda Robinson Headshot

The CEO of Universities Australia, the nation’s peak body representing the university sector, highlights the characteristics that have positioned Australia as a truly prominent destination for higher education, while detailing a few of the primary challenges threatening that status. She also explains how academia is impacting the fruitful progression of Australia’s oil and gas sector, as well as the importance of collaboration in overcoming cyclical downturns.

Education reform has always been a hot topic in political discussions – especially during your almost 5 year tenure now with Universities Australia (UA). From a policy standpoint, what’s currently at the top of your agenda as Chief Executive?

The university sector in Australia has been at the subject of substantial funding cuts in recent years. Consequently, it’s become increasingly challenging for universities to be able to provide the quality programs both in research and education that students, students’ families, the community, and employees have every right to expect. At the top of our agenda it to ensure that the level of investment in universities is stable, predictable and sufficient.

Also of deep interest is the need to ensure that we have the policy and program settings needed to become an innovation nation.  As Australia grapples with profound economic, social and industrial change, our intellectual infrastructure – universities – will increasingly be called on to play an ever-more important role in positioning the nation for long-term success. It is our universities that supply the graduates that will not only fill, but also create, the jobs of the future. Through their research programs, they deliver the ideas and breakthroughs that solve our most challenging problems and drive innovation.

We’re living in a progressively globalized world. Students now have multiple choices of where they can study. One of UA’s key objectives is to ensure that Australia remains a destination of choice for students – both international and domestic – and that the Australian university system continues to enjoy a reputation as one of the best in the world.

The Australian university system continues to enjoy a reputation as one of the best in the world.

How are Australian universities pushing the innovation frontier and supporting the overall development of the oil and gas industry?

The significance oil and gas to Australia’s economy is self-evident – it is still the case that oil is the commodity that underpins all others and the national economy itself – and natural gas is now Australia’s fourth largest export behind iron-ore, coal and education. In supporting the sector, many universities play host to research centers and petroleum schools. Undergraduate education in petroleum engineering is provided at the University of New South Wales, Curtin University, the University of Adelaide and the University of Western Australia.

The North Australia Centre for Oil and Gas based at Charles Darwin University, the Institute for Mineral and Energy Resources at the University of Adelaide, the ARC Industrial Transformation Research Hub for Offshore Floating Facilities hosted by the University of Western Australia, UWA’s Centre for Energy, UNSW’s Australian Energy Research Institute are some of the research centers that focus on the needs of the oil and gas operations in their respective regions, and the nation. These centers operate and collaborate with industry, government, and university partners. They also work with a number of professional associations.

In Australia, one of factors that truly differentiates oil and gas from other sectors is the strong relationship between universities, research centers, and industry. They work very closely together, and that’s absolutely critical given for ensuring that the needs of industry continue to be met particularly given its cyclical nature.  It’s important that the research centers and the petroleum schools themselves are acutely attuned to industry dynamics and developments – working hand-in-glove to mutually reinforce shared objectives.

In what way can universities best collaborate with industry stakeholders to mitigate the sector’s cyclical effects?

What might be of benefit to petroleum schools in particular would be coming together with industry to have a discussion around what the future industry scenarios.  It is in these periods of downturn that schools face the greatest challenges, and if left unaddressed, the industry will experience an inevitable shortage of graduates when transitioning to an up cycle – as witnessed several years ago.

Typically, and not surprisingly, there is a lag response between industry developments and labor market demand.  For example, now we have some truly stellar graduates from petroleum schools that cannot secure a job, whereas five years ago the industry couldn’t get enough of them. So, the ability to continually and adequately deliver on labor market demands remains a salient challenge for our nation’s petroleum schools.

International education is undoubtedly a pivotal component of Australia’s continued economic growth and prosperity. From your perspective, why is Australia such a favorable destination for foreign students looking to pursue or continue higher education?

Currently, Australia is the 3rd most popular destination for international students after the UK and the US. We’re an English speaking country, which obviously has an appeal for those looking to learn and study the language. We’re also in close proximity to Asia Pacific, making Australia well placed to service the demands associated with the region’s rapid economic growth and development.   In Asia, education is very highly valued as a social and economic enabler.   We have a strong track record in delivering international education and the quality of our courses is world-renowned.

Higher education is Australia’s third largest export and largest service export. This is something that the government recognizes and supports through the development of a national and international education strategy.  Particularly in the context of falling commodity prices, we need to maintain our strength in this area.  Higher education is something that we have been doing for a long time and doing exceptionally well. So our priority focuses on maintaining, and even enhancing, Australia’s comparative advantage as a provider of international education.

Currently, Australia is the 3rd most popular destination for international students after the UK and the US.

Do you anticipate a point in which enrollment rates for international students exceed that of domestic?

There’s roughly 300,000 international students studying at Australian students compared to around 1.2 million domestic so I don’t see this happening any time soon.  The number of students able to be accommodated depends on the capacity of the institutions and the ability to provide a high quality student experience for both domestic as well as international students.  Any growth in the international education market must be sustainable.  But it’s important to keep in mind that while the largest proportion of international students are enrolled in higher education courses, students are also coming to Australia to study at our schools, our TAFE colleges, private colleges and English language schools.  We are also seeing increasing interest in international students studying at Australian universities located offshore.

It seems funding models have been at the forefront of policy debate and opposition – first with the onset of a demand-driven scheme, and then with the recently denounced deregulation of university fees. Especially now with any official changes tabled until 2017, would you say there’s any urgency for reform given the current state of higher education?

It depends on the driver for those reforms. One of key proposed changes, which is still government policy, is for a 20 percent reduction in the per student funding for universities.  That, of course, creates an immediate imperative for student fees to increase by a commensurate amount simply to maintain revenues at existing levels.  Not surprisingly, both universities and students remain strongly opposed to the magnitude of this cut.  The Government is consulting with all stakeholders in considering the possibility of another package to prosecute this year.  The rationale is to ensure that quality and the international competitiveness of our university system is maintained.

In terms of urgency, if we assume the status quo the biggest challenge is how we can properly fund research programs at universities.  It’s important to understand the contribution of Australian research not just to us, but the world.  Every day, millions of people around the world benefit from Australian research breakthroughs.  Maintaining a world class research system does not come cheap and the Australian community needs to consider how much it is willing to pay.   Research is also important because it contributes to the global ranking of universities which influences the choices that international students make on where to study.

Having a really strong, credible research system is crucial, not just because that’s the foundation upon which new ideas, industry, and products are generated, but also because it goes a long way in contributing to the reputation of individual institutions and the sector as a whole.

If we are striving towards an innovation-driven nation that can keep up with the rest of the world, then we do need to ensure that our research programs are funded properly.  This is a real pressure point that does need to be addressed.

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