Release type: Speech


Our priorities for strengthening Australia’s universities


The Hon Alan Tudge MP
Minister for Education and Youth

Thank you for the opportunity to be with you today and to have so many here in person.  Unfortunately, my fellow Victorians cannot be here due to the most recent lockdown. But we send our best wishes to them. 

The Victorian outbreak is a reminder that this disease has not gone away. In fact, if anything, the COVID situation internationally is now worse than it was 12 months ago, as it now spreads from the developed world throughout the developing world.

We must remain vigilant and cannot be complacent.

COVID, of course, has impacted our entire society and will continue to do so. Some industries however have suffered more than others and are more affected by border closures. 

Higher education is one of those. 

It is a challenging time for the sector. Your finances have been hit by the lack of international students coming into the country, and I appreciate that the lower enrolments today due to border closures will have an effect over several years.

The relative positive news is that the impact on enrolments, at least in aggregate, has not been as great as many expected. The most recent figures show that total international student enrolments at our universities are down only 11 per cent on 2019 figures. With revenue from international students representing about 27 per cent of total universities’ revenues in 2019, this means that revenue from border closures to date is about 3 per cent down.

I appreciate that these are aggregate numbers and some universities have been harder hit than others. I also appreciate that commencements are down far more than the aggregate decline.

I can assure you that we are watching these figures carefully.

As you know, the Government provided an extra $1 billion in research funding to universities in the budget last October to alleviate financial pressure from COVID. We also provided an extra $550 million to support 50,000 short courses and an extra 12,000 Commonwealth supported places. This is on top of the Job-ready Graduates reforms which created 30,000 additional places.

All up, more Australians are studying at our universities than ever before — an increase of 39,000 undergraduate enrolments or a 5 per cent increase.

When will the borders open and when will we resume larger scale student numbers returning?

I cannot answer that question, and no one can with any certainty. There is still so much that is unknown. The Budget assumption is that larger numbers come back in the second half of next year.

My hope is that we will have smaller scale pilots in the months ahead. South Australia submitted a proposal to me last Friday and it looks promising. New South Wales is likely to provide a proposal shortly. While such pilots might be relatively small in number, they would provide a confidence boost to the sector and hopefully strongly signal that we do want to see international students back, that we acknowledge their patience in studying online and that there is hope on the horizon.

Having made these remarks about COVID and the immediate challenges, I want to spend the rest of my time today discussing the broader strategic challenges and the Government’s priorities.

They are not disconnected from the immediate challenges, but they also have longer term impact. 

Research commercialisation and industry collaboration

Let me start with what is my top priority in my portfolio, which is our research commercialisation agenda.  

I said earlier in the year in launching our consultation paper on this topic that we want our universities to play a bigger role. To not just produce brilliant pure research but to work more with businesses and governments to translate this research into breakthrough products, new businesses and ideas to grow our economy and strengthen our society.  

Moreover, we want our universities to be our partners in policy making. To harness our best minds to help us solve our biggest challenges. 

These remain our core objectives. Our aim is not just to make incremental progress; we want to fundamentally shift the dial, so that in five or ten years’ time, we start to look more like Israel or California or the UK in terms of how our universities interact with business and generate new ideas, new jobs, and new sources of wealth for Australia. 

We have received over 170 submissions in response to our consultation paper - thank you for your work on these. We have analysed international initiatives. We have spoken to leaders in academia, business and elsewhere.

Jeff Connolly and the Expert Taskforce that he leads have provided hours of their time and have consulted broadly. Their advice has been invaluable as we have designed our new approach to research commercialisation.

I have always said that we have some standout successes and strong institutions in this area that we can build upon. Over the past few months, I have had the pleasure of seeing some outstanding commercialisation developments at your campuses around Australia — from Tasmania, to southern Queensland, Victoria and New South Wales.  

There is a strong consensus emerging about the need to do more in this space, the barriers which have prevented more occurring, as well as some of the directions in which we should head.  

For example, it is clear that nearly all the incentives for an academic are geared towards publishing and that there are few incentives for translating research down the commercialisation path.  

As one very senior scientist (who had been an entrepreneur) told me, when she told the university DVC that she wanted to commercialise her idea, the response was “well as long as it doesn’t interfere with your publications”. 

Only one of the four major global rankings, which drive much behaviour, recognises commercialisation — at 2.5 per cent of the overall methodology.

It is the same with tackling social challenges. I recall asking one Vice-Chancellor why so few of the 2,800 education academics are trying to tackle the core strategic challenge in our schools of standards declining despite funding increasing. His response: “It is arguably not knowledge creation, and even if it was, it would struggle to get published in global journals because it would be entirely Australia-based.”

The one place I visited where the incentives were strongly aligned towards both pure research and commercialisation, was at the place which has arguably been the most successful in Australia at both: the Walter and Eliza Hall Institute. 

Incentives matter! 

There was strong consensus around the desire for a stage-gate funding model. We have analysed your suggestions and are working on details and being informed by international practice, particularly that in the United States. 

The need for much of it to be industry-driven has also come through strongly. It cannot be limited to a supply side focus. To bridge the valley of death between pure research and commercial outcomes, we can’t just rely on pushing ideas through the Technology Readiness Levels; we need businesses to pull them through as well.

Finally, many submissions and consultations noted the importance of creating a culture of collaboration between universities and industry as the bedrock for innovation and commercialisation to occur.

If you have people generally interacting between business and universities — at an undergraduate level, at postgraduate, and at academic level — then the common language emerges, and ideas will generate. As the Chief Defence Scientist said to me: academics are natural problem solvers. If they are simply in the same room as the businesspeople, they won’t be able to help themselves but to solve their challenges! 

To this end, I am announcing today a further short review to enhance the collaboration at the undergraduate level. Professor Martin Bean and Professor Peter Dawkins will lead a review to develop ideas to create closer university-industry collaboration in teaching and learning and to further ensure future graduates are work-ready. 

Importantly, this review will consider how we can get more students to have industry experience, and potentially count that experience as credit towards their qualification. It will also look at the interaction between the VET and higher ed sectors and how they can interact more seamlessly. It will build on the Shergold and Gonski work in New South Wales.  

We are listening carefully to your submissions on research commercialisation, to the consultations and the advice of our expert Taskforce. We will be finalising our work in the next few months and I hope you will see many of your ideas in the final design. 

International Education

My second priority is back on international students, but more at the strategic medium term level, as opposed to the work that is occurring presently to try and get pilots up and running this year and dealing with the fiscal challenges of today.

Two months ago, I launched the discussion paper to gather views on the development of our international education strategy for the rest of this decade. 

I am thankful for the work that the Expert Members of the Council of International Education have done in consulting broadly on this. They have conducted consultations and seminars with over 1,400 stakeholder participants and received over 100 submissions.

This is a big topic.

As I had indicated previously, as we come out of COVID and get our borders open again, we will need to think differently about international students, taking into account four broad objectives:

  1. Providing revenue for institutions and the economy
  2. Enhancing the learning experience of Australian students
  3. Ensuring that we have the workforce skills that we need
  4. Strengthening our people to people linkages.

All are important, not just the first.

A key part of this will be how we diversify our international student population in Australia. We are reliant on just two countries for 55 per cent of our enrolments in Australia at the moment. 

Not only does this limit the diversity of perspectives in classrooms, it also lowers the resilience of our universities to changes in global demand, as we saw with the Indian student downturn in 2009.

Please think deeply about how we should do this. Former Vice-Chancellor, Greg Craven, has made strong statements how this should be achieved. But I need your views also. This is important to the Government.

Related to this is the challenge I have set to take advantage of the opportunity to diversify the education delivery models and in doing so grow and reach the massive markets around the world which are requiring tertiary education but not be able to afford a full time in-country experience in Australia or other rich country.

I know the Expert Members are looking at this seriously. 

But the opportunities are enormous. India alone has set an ambition to train 400 million people. 

In a decade’s time, we should have ten million international students studying for Australian qualifications that we are reaching with online, in-country or hybrid models.

The UK is already firmly down this path, with 58 percent of its international enrolments studying offshore. Our comparable figure is 22 percent.

This is a huge opportunity to help developing countries with their development ambitions but also provide new revenue streams for universities.

With a similar mindset, there is also the massive opportunity to be the provider of learning for the Australian corporate market.

I know some universities are thinking deeply about these opportunities. The Government wants to support you in these endeavours, where you have real impact and also create new revenue streams.

Domestic student experience

I will mention one other priority before finishing with some comments on freedom of speech.

Our public universities were initially established for one purpose: to educate Australians.

Let’s not forget this. 

In the past several months, I have had almost every Vice-Chancellor talk to me about research and international students, but not many talk to me about their ambitions for Australian students.

The student experience surveys based on last year’s experience were not great —- for obvious reasons. 

But I am still hearing from too many students or their parents who tell me that their usual student experience has still not returned. That they may only have one contact hour or none.

So for this year, we must see a focus in our universities on how to enhance the classroom and learning experience of Australian students. And this must start with a return to the previous face-to-face learning, where COVID rules allow.  

Some do it brilliantly, but it should be all that do it brilliantly.

Freedom of Speech

Let me finish with the essential value which underpins the very essence of a university: freedom of speech and freedom of academic inquiry.

You cannot pursue truth without freedom of expression. You cannot create knowledge without freedom of academic inquiry.

The inaugural Vice-Chancellor of the Australian National University, Sir Douglas Copland, summarised his position when he said to the then Prime Minister Robert Menzies in 1948:  “the establishment and maintenance of academic freedom is more important than the actual research and teaching done inside the walls of a university.”

Two and half years have passed since the Government commissioned the Hon Robert French AC, the former Chief Justice of the High Court, to review freedom of speech in Australian higher education providers.

As you know, he developed a model code for introduction in all universities and all university leaders agreed to adopt it. That was 26 months ago.

We then asked former law professor and former Vice-Chancellor Sally Walker to assess the progress of the universities on their progress at adopting the Code. She reported six months ago.

It has been a long journey to protect what should be the core value of a university.

Today there are now 33 universities considered to either be fully or mostly aligned to the Model Code. I thank those of you who have done further work in response to Professor Walker’s comments. Those that have implemented the code in full have told me the sky did not fall in following the implementation.

I want to see the Model Code implemented fully this year, with no more excuses. You all committed to do this.

If it becomes apparent that universities remain unable or unwilling to adopt the Model Code, I will examine all options available to the Government to enforce it - which may include legislation.

Further, the government will be expecting universities to report annually on how freedom of speech issues are being managed against the Code. A template statement is being developed by the University Chancellors Council, led by Stephen Gerlach. The expectation is that this would be included in annual reports each year.

This was a key recommendation of Professor Walker.


Today, I’ve outlined some of my key priorities for the sector – research commercialisation, international education, the domestic student experience, and freedom of speech.

There are many more challenges facing the sector that we continue to work on together including countering foreign interference, raising the quality of initial teacher education and understanding and preparing for digital disruption. 

We also need to start a conversation about how we can support greater differentiation and specialisation in the university sector. We have 39 comprehensive universities, which may not be an optimal model for the quality of teaching or research in this country.

These are challenging times, but the government wants to work with you closely — to listen carefully and to consult broadly — as I believe we have done since we have been in government.

I look forward to continuing to work with you on this and our other challenges. Thank you for your time today.