From the Vice Chancellor: Why we’re in a prime position for the future

Professor David Lloyd, Vice Chancellor and President

Last week, I made an address to the National Press Club about the role of universities in Australia, how that role can be updated and improved, and how the current Universities Accord process is working towards that.

I made the address in my capacity as Chair of Universities Australia – the body that represents Australia’s 39 comprehensive universities – but it’s worth taking a moment to reflect on it all while wearing my other hat, as VC of UniSA (oh, and that other-other hat, as one of the two VCs guiding the formation of a new university in South Australia … so many hats … and helmets too, occasionally).

When you address an occasion like a National Press Club lunch, it’s generally a good idea to bring along a big ‘takeaway’ concept you can drop on the audience – something our esteemed colleagues in the media can put up in neon lights later that day.

In this case, Universities Australia was keen to emphasise a number – $7 billion. As Times Higher Education reported, that’s how much the National Skills Commission suggests the Australian economy stands to lose by 2026 if we don’t do something about a looming skills shortage.

A big part of the responsibility for avoiding that skills shortfall, of course, lies with universities. The National Skills Commission’s employment projections show that in the next few years, more than half of all new jobs will be highly skilled – meaning they will require a university qualification.

If Australia’s higher education sector doesn’t produce those skilled workers, it’s not just universities that will be worse off, it is everyone – even, dare I say it, those people who currently wish to paint Australian universities as archaic ivory tower institutions with no social currency.

A highly skilled Australian workforce isn’t just a priority for the university sector – it’s a priority for the nation.

But meeting that priority won’t just come through politicians waving a magic chequebook and saying, “Let’s graduate more graduates”.

Yes, funding certainty is important to ensure we can deliver the educational excellence that is needed to equip the workforce of the future. But at the same time, we need to find ways to make higher education something everyone wants to – and can – sign up for. And we need to find ways to ensure that once people sign up, they are supported to succeed.  

For a number of reasons – including a booming jobs market and high cost of living – participation at Australia’s universities is not as strong as it could be right now. Reversing that requires more than just slapping a new coat of paint on the way we’ve always done things – it requires us to rethink how we’re providing education, and who we’re providing it for.

Meeting the nation’s skills targets requires greater participation at university, and that means we need to cast the net wider. It requires greater non-traditional engagement, which requires us to improve diversity in access and delivery by creating greater flexibility within learning options to accommodate a wider range of learners.

In part, that comes through providing better access and support for groups who haven’t traditionally attended university – including lower socioeconomic groups, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples, and regional residents. And in part, it comes through providing new ways to study for people – such as mature students looking to reskill or upskill – for whom the traditional university format might not be relevant or practical.

Then – if government sets the right targets for research – flowing on from that, a newly diverse and better-supported generation of graduates can deliver improved productivity – another area in which Australia is currently struggling. That in turn leads to greater research capacity and greater economic strength to invest back into research, which further fuels efficiency and innovation and continues to attract and support a highly skilled workforce.

But it all starts with equitable access to flexible education.

Or, to put it another way, it all starts with what UniSA has had as its central mission for the past 32 years: making university-level qualifications attractive to, accessible for, and achievable by, a much larger section of the population than has traditionally been supported by the sector.

UniSA is proud of our heritage as a Dawkins reform institution. And we’re proud of the practical, vocationally minded institutions that came together to form this one. But we’re also equally proud of what we have done since – taking the idea that “education is for everyone”, and then ensuring the education we deliver is as good as that available to anyone, anywhere.

That commitment is already embedded at the core of the new university we are working to create with our colleagues down the road (cue hat change). The new Adelaide University will be founded on, largely, the UniSA Act, including a deep commitment to regional education, Aboriginal education, and access for people from lower socioeconomic backgrounds – all integral aspects of UniSA’s DNA that will follow us into the new university.

We’ve also committed to creating completely new teaching programs, ensuring the new university has the highest-quality, most contemporary curriculum in the country. It will be totally modernised for the digital future, providing students the flexibility and support they need to succeed. It will be a system that supports learners as they reskill to meet changing work needs throughout life, an approach that reflects innovations like the Federal Government’s new Microcredentials Pilot in Higher Education program.

It is entirely coincidental that the year the new Adelaide University will launch, 2026, is the same year by which the National Skills Commission says Australia will need more skilled graduates.

But that coincidence does emphasise something important – here in South Australia, we’re not only moving in the right direction, we’re leading the way forward. In South Australia right now, we are purpose-building a new university for the future, right at the very moment when the rest of the country is wondering just how they’re going to drag higher education out of the past.

And that is a remarkable position to be in – not just for the staff and students who will live and breathe this new university, but for every person in South Australia.

Professor David Lloyd
Vice Chancellor and President