There is increasing international consensus that the future will belong to the knowledge-based economies which are able to draw from both the intellectual property which underpins innovation and technological industries, and from the trained capacity of a highly skilled workforce – ‘skilled’ in the sense of both professions and operatives, as well as of analysis and creative capacities. The wealth of nations will reside in that citizenry, and its commitment to education, training and lifelong learning.
Already we see the degree to which, in advanced OECD nations, the new jobs are in new industries, and the new wealth is being generated by innovation. Ideas and intellectual property have become the new capital, with research and development as the great connector of creativity and production.
It is one of the undoubted strengths of our nation that higher education – particularly the foundational universities in each state, and the later addition of the new styles of universities in the 1970s and 1980s – has played a key role in the development of our society. And, through education and research – notably since the creation of university research departments and institutes, as well as CSIRO, the Australian Research Council and the National Health and Medical Research Council – we have foreshadowed globalisation by making major links to the international world of scholarship, science and the arts. Education has at last challenged the tyranny of distance.
We now have a system of reasonable quality mass higher education, with growing participation rates for school-leavers and the mature-aged. The notion of life-long learning is becoming a reality in the lives of many Australians facing a changing workplace. Post-graduate research and training has taken an even greater leap forward in percentage terms. All this certainly aligns us with the international directions towards the knowledge-based nations of the future.
But, and it is a big ‘but’, it has simply not gone far enough. If we genuinely intend to be part of the advanced economies of the future we are making far too modest an investment in the higher education and research sectors.
In the face of the extraordinary international emphasis on innovation, new intellectual property and new technologies, we are currently doing the equally extraordinary thing of beginning to reduce national investment in higher education, in research and development, and in basic research.
The awful and ignored reality is that Australia has been progressively slipping down the scale of advanced nations investing strongly in higher education, and research and development. In the latter half of the last decade, many governments – notably in the USA, Asia, the UK, and Europe – have strongly recognised the importance of research as essential for economic development.
In the jargon of my trade, ‘doing Big Science’ involves major investment. We are already working from the base of a small nation, and are in real danger of being marginalised in the generation of new knowledge, notably in the biotechnologies. We have begun to lose creative scientists and researchers to larger, better resourced laboratories and libraries. The next phase could be a major haemorrhaging of talent and research teams, almost impossible to replace.
As to the broad educational matter of supporting quality student training, that too is increasingly at risk. Just to take the example of my own university (which is often portrayed as being relatively well off in its infrastructure for research and teaching), we have made some careful calculations of what are the resources needed to lift us into the rank of world-class universities. Our current income level translates to about $20,000 per student; for top international universities such as Harvard, Cornell or Stanford, the rate is up to $160,000 per student. The data indeed speaks for itself. The results are pretty troubling, no matter how one analyses the source of that funding.
What then of the future?
There can be little doubt that the ability of Australia to benefit from the knowledge revolution will heavily depend on our capacity to contribute to that process. Much of the economic growth of the next decades will be attributable to the growth of knowledge-based industries, particularly those focussed on ‘IT’ (information technology) and ‘BT’ (biotechnology). The key point is that funding for higher education and research is an investment in the future of every Australian.
Australian universities see the need to maintain a strong and diverse higher education sector. Universities with different missions are needed to deal with the diverse needs of a diverse modern society – and we need to include in that diversity, a select number of world-class research-intensive universities pursuing basic and strategic research at the international cutting edge of quality.