Universities Australia (UA), the peak body representing Australia’s public universities, held its 9th conference in Canberra last week, and for those of us who can recall the early days of the event, this year’s gathering represented a stunning transformation, including wonderful performances.
Nearly a decade ago the event was held at a small hotel, Kevin Rudd was in the Lodge, and the main topic amongst the gathering of vice chancellors and senior administrators was maintaining their relationships with the federal government, primarily by optimising their quadrennial funding compacts.
Last week’s event - with nearly 1,000 attendees at the National Convention Centre - couldn’t have been more different. The dual facts of policy paralysis from the Abbott and Turnbull Governments, combined with the accelerating rate of change in Australia’s economy thanks to the current wave of digital disruption, turned “UA” into a conference about big ideas in action. Here are two.
1. How to prepare students for the changing landscape of employment
First is the changing landscape of employment, and the work universities must do to better prepare their students for it. Remarkably, for institutions that traditionally have viewed themselves as the engines of new ideas and research, there was an acceptance that much of the innovation required would have to come from outside the sector, primarily from the nation’s emerging startup economy.
The current chair of UA, Western Sydney University’s Vice-Chancellor Barney Glover, used his address at the National Press Club to launch “Startup Smarts: Universities and the Startup Economy,” a series of case studies documenting the importance of the sector to a vibrant local landscape for entrepreneurs. Yet in many ways it was the numerous sessions and panels discussing the impact of innovation on universities that were the most powerful. There was a recognition that the structural shift taking place in Australia and across the developed world will require a rethink of universities’ traditional approach to higher education. It isn’t just the wider world that’s changing; it’s the role of universities in the world.
Universities are searching for ways to help their students explore what it means to be an entrepreneur and are even investing capital to help them develop business plans and launch their ideas. Several universities have taken the additional leap of investing capital in a professionally managed incubator called EduGrowth. (Full disclosure: I have volunteered to serve as a mentor to some of the founders in the first group of startups.) Two Dutch economists shared their findings about the transformation of American cities from “rust-belts” to “brain-belts” courtesy of valuable collaboration between talented entrepreneurs and innovative, open and collaborative universities.
Given the enthusiastic embrace of all things entrepreneurial, it was the most welcome Studiosity has ever felt at the event. I think this came through quite clearly in an interview I gave that was podcasted during the event.
2. UA's Indigenous Strategy
Second, at the annual dinner in Parliament House UA launched its Indigenous Strategy: 2017-2020, which contains a plan to grow Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander (ATSI) participation in university education, as students, graduates, academic and research staff. It was an incredible evening, hosted by Rachel Perkins, the documentary filmmaker and daughter of Indigenous rights activist Charlie Perkins, and with an amazing lineup for speakers and performers. The document itself was jointly launched by Professor Peter Buckskin, Chair of the National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Higher Education Consortium and Professor Glover.
Seeing UA’s focus on Indigenous education reminded me of the work we do every day to support ATSI students across Australia. It’s been part of Studiosity's DNA since our founding more than a decade ago and underpins much of the work we do every day in support of universities, TAFEs, and high schools, a substantial portion of which is funded by federal equity grants.
How serious are we about supporting Indigenous students? There’s no one better than Adam Goodes to share our story.
Jack Goodman is the Founder and executive chair of Studiosity. He has more than two decades of experience founding and working in edtech startups in Australia and overseas. He is also a mentor to young entrepreneurs in the EduGrowth incubator, and the president of Friends of Libraries Australia.