Sitting in locked down Australia, I am imagining a university beyond space and time. An unprecedented global crisis makes you acutely aware of what the future could look like… but at the same time I find myself asking: is it really possible to imagine universities that are too altered from the fabric that has remained so substantial, so fundamental to the world for so long?
For me, this exercise is about how golden an age it could be if universities were accepted as the assets we are rather than as burdens of cost. What could our society achieve if we were positioned to deliver the best research for the world unhindered by policy vagaries.
So to me, in Australia, with our university sector teetering on a financial precipice, and as Chief Executive of the Group of Eight (Go8), our nation’s leading research universities, never has the question “how universities in the future will shape crises and will be shaped by potential future crises” been more relevant. The resilience universities have shown since the University of Bologna in 1088 already provides the answer. Universities will be reshaped because we are not ivory towers; we are an integral part of society and society must reshape too.
Facing the realities of a post-COVID world means working with the Australian Government to design a new future in teaching and research. Together we must reshape an architecture able to withstand three current crises: COVID-19, a changed geopolitical reality, and Australia’s first recession in almost 30 years.
It is inarguable that Australia’s leading research-intensive universities have been the most exposed. While seven Go8 members are ranked in the world’s top 100 universities, this has largely been funded by international student fees.
And let’s be clear: it is the high quality of this research that Australia is relying on now. That has led to the University of Queensland being selected by the Coalition for Global Preparedness Innovations to develop a potential vaccine; attracted philanthropic funding for trials for a potential COVID treatment at the University of Melbourne, and allowed researchers at Monash University to identify a potential antiviral drug that could be administered via an inhaler.
But COVID-19 has laid bare Australia’s unsustainable university funding model.
This does not happen in competitor nations. We are called public universities, but we have not been able to rely on public support for too many years. The Go8’s average Government funding (excluding domestic student contributions) sits at just over 30 per cent. It is now highly questionable whether the pipeline of international student fees – dollars the Australian Government has relied on to fund us on its behalf – will return.
The only way forward is to change.
The Go8 does not agree with everything the Government is suggesting. We are far more than degree factories or just ‘impatient’ research. But we do have to find common ground. That is how universities stay nimble and survive. More sensible research funding – through better funded but fewer research grants – is a possibility, as is a pivot to a higher percentage of research for the immediate needs of our community that still allows room for the fundamental research that has driven the massive “finds” of world’s advances. That is reshaping.
“Our universities have already shown that we can adapt quickly in the short term. Australia is changing and changing fast. It has no choice. And neither do we. “
Ms Vicki Thomson is the Chief Executive of the Group of Eight (Go8) – Australia’s eight leading research-intensive universities. She took up her role in January 2015. Prior to this, she was Executive Director of the Australian Technology Network of Universities (ATN). Ms Thomson’s diverse background covers print and electronic journalism, politics, issues management and the higher education sector. She has an extensive media, political and policy background and was Chief of Staff to a South Australian Premier. She is a Board member of the European Australian Business Council and is a member of the Australian Government’s New Colombo Plan Reference Group.