Impact Studios

Australia’s no 1 university for research impact

ASSOCIATE PROFESSOR TAMSON PIETSCH: It can be hard to make decisions at the best of times, let alone in times of crisis. Higher education leaders and policymakers in Australia are facing a lot of hard decisions right now. There’s the triple ‘R’ threat of reallocation, retraction and restructures. These are common phrases in our daily papers when examining the future of the tertiary sector. And there’s a lot of talk, too, about recovery. But what if we thought about a different R word? Reconstruction.

ASSOCIATE PROFESSOR TAMSON PIETSCH: Welcome to The New Social Contract. I’m your host, Tamson Pietsch. As much as this is a moment in which our societies are facing significant challenges, there’s also an enormous capacity to rethink the basis on which we run universities and the potential to imagine a new system.

ASSOCIATE PROFESSOR TAMSON PIETSCH: Higher education is not a ship without a rudder. There are people at the helm and they have different ideas about the purpose of the university sector. And today we’ll be hearing from two of them. I’ll be sitting down with Professor Attila Brungs, the Vice-Chancellor of my home institution, the University of Technology, Sydney, to discuss what universities want and need from government at the moment, and what a new social contract between universities and their publics might look like.

VICE-CHANCELLOR ATTILA BRUNGS: My biggest concern in the next little while is if you focus too much on costs, you can take yourself down a path that returns universities to a very elite, small mode of education. I’ll be quite blunt. The rich upper echelons of society get a great university education and everyone else gets a poor education and there’s very much a schism in our society. Not only do you not need that from an equity point of view. Not only do not need from an Australian culture point of view, that destroys economic value. In this post-COVID world, we need all of our credible people resources working for our country’s prosperity and our national well-being.

ASSOCIATE PROFESSOR TAMSON PIETSCH: And we’ll also cross to Parliament House in Canberra to speak with the Honourable Tanya Plibersek, the Shadow Minister for Education and Training, to get her take on Australian universities.

THE HON. TANYA PLIBERSEK: Maybe crisis delivers some innovation, but if all you’re doing is struggling to catch your next breath before the sort of roiling crisis of having to find voluntary redundancies in your organisation takes over again, it’s pretty hard to innovate effectively. So the first thing you need is leadership from government to say that this is important to us. We need post-secondary school education working in a less siloed way in a way that really brings out the best in both sectors. That really is explicit about the fact that vocational education and universities are not in competition, but they are complementary institutions and that many Australians throughout their lives will have elements of their education delivered in either setting.

ASSOCIATE PROFESSOR TAMSON PIETSCH: Attila thank you for joining us. I imagine being a Vice-Chancellor is one of the more challenging jobs in Australia at the moment.

VICE-CHANCELLOR ATTILA BRUNGS: It’s a challenging job. But before I go into the challenges, can I say right from the outset, it is still one of the greatest privileges anybody can possibly have. I feel the honour on a day to day basis. We have thousands of years history of universities, and our aim is how can we help society through challenges? How can we help society become better places? How can we hold mirrors up to society? How can we do the research that helps people get out of bed in the morning, cures their cancer, helps their kids get educated? So it is absolutely challenging. But I couldn’t start off by saying how keenly I feel and still feel the honour and how proud I am to be part of a community like UTS. In week one, we had 50 academics across university volunteer their time to work with government and community groups to tackle the COVID challenges. I have got hundreds of academics at the moment working on programs to try and help our economy recover, to try and create jobs for those who don’t have them. So that gets to the heart of what a university is. A university is a public institution. We exist solely for public good. And that’s what makes my job, even in these times of challenge, so much more rewarding in that there is something worth fighting for. And then every time you succeed, it doesn’t just help your institution. It helps our country.

ASSOCIATE PROFESSOR TAMSON PIETSCH: You’ve been very vocal in talking about UTS as a public university. So what does that public mission mean?

VICE-CHANCELLOR ATTILA BRUNGS: The university is a public institution that exists for social good. Regardless of where it gets its funding from, we are enacted under a separate act of Parliament – New South Wales Parliament. We’ve some very clear goals that we need to help educate society. We need to provide research to further society, and we have to provide debate, critique, provide rigorous evidence that society can have the important discussion society needs to have going forward. So that’s what a public institution is. Now what it means is that everything we do has the long term best interests of Australia at heart. Sometimes it means we’re countercyclical. So sometimes it means that we are saying things that parts of society maybe that our policymakers don’t necessarily agree with, because again, it is unfortunate, many times policymakers are driven into short term electoral cycles, whereas in university, you can say “hang on, that’s fine for the next three months, but what about the next five years, 10 years? Where are we going?” Now, the challenges of the university is that it’s embedded in our DNA, is the word. We educate people. People go out and make society a better place. So often I give my speech every time at graduation. People say, you know, the biggest impact universities have got are their research. Curing cancer, blah, blah, blah.

VICE-CHANCELLOR ATTILA BRUNGS: I look around the wonderful faces in the graduation hall and say, “no no it’s you”. You’re gonna go out and solve today’s challenges. You’re gonna go out and decide how to make things better for your fellow humans. So one of things we do is, the most responsibility as a university is how do we construct education in such a way that we can support people going out to do that. To set up the frameworks, to get them to think creatively, to get them to think the big picture, to get them to think about sustainability, to get them to think of the long term. Then our research, pretty much everything in a society is based on that research. If you look at the high level, it’s easy to say but much harder to do. So something that we’ve done at UTS, is we’ve come up with what we call our social impact framework. So we try and measure what social benefit we have right across the university and hold everything to account against that. Because even in the good times, and these are far from the good times, shall I say, the university finances, you can’t do everything. So you have to make a choice. Do I do this education or do I do that?

VICE-CHANCELLOR ATTILA BRUNGS: Do I work at this community group or door to support that government policy? To make those choices, you need a framework that comes back to, at its essence, measuring how much broad social impact you can have.

ASSOCIATE PROFESSOR TAMSON PIETSCH: So how does keeping the long view at the forefront of your mission intersect with the need to run a business which is also what universities are? They’ve got balance sheets. They run on year to year accounting cycles. Who pays for all of this?

VICE-CHANCELLOR ATTILA BRUNGS: It’s paid for in a variety of ways. So UTS is roughly a $1.1 Billion organisation. So the joy I have is I’ve got to run a $1.1 Billion organisation. I don’t have to do things that if I was running an investment bank, for example, where I’m held to quarterly accounts of earning more money from my shareholders. I just have to make sure that I use that $1.1 Billion in the best way possible for society. So therefore, our KPIs are much more broader. Our stakeholders are broader. I’ll use the word of one of my council members once who said the challenges university has is rather than an all business, who has its shareholders on board as a key stakeholder, which is very important for clear commercial arrangements, the university’s stakeholders are society, are students, the government, our staff. Therefore, we have a much broader set of stakeholders.

VICE-CHANCELLOR ATTILA BRUNGS: So what do you need to do is you need to work with those stakeholders. You need to run an organisation that is efficient and effective, but effective at what? I can be as efficient as I bloody well like, but if I’m not efficient in the right areas, what’s the point? So therefore, we’ve taken a lot of time at UTS and our new strategies around that to say ‘what do we want to achieve?” And then let’s make sure we use everything, including our finances, and run our finances as tightly as possible to get to that outcome. And that outcome is a certain set of key societal objectives which we measure and manage in a very concrete way.

ASSOCIATE PROFESSOR TAMSON PIETSCH: So what are those societal objectives that UTS has set?

VICE-CHANCELLOR ATTILA BRUNGS: The first is moving towards a lifetime of learning. That is a big shift in society. And in fact, the post-COVID world will be quite different. But some of the trends that we identify pre-COVID are actually going to happen faster and harder and happen simultaneously. So things like the need for a lifetime of learning. So people need to learn a lot more all the way through their lives. The need to be training and retraining. But I think COVID has brought them on faster because we could hold people without jobs. How do we help them get the skills they need for the new job? Automation will be coming faster as businesses who are under financial pressure try and cut costs. So therefore, how do we reskill people to get new jobs? So this lifetime of learning, universities crudely were set up to take wonderful kids from school, give them a great experience with two or three years, and then wish them luck for the rest of their careers. That’s completely shifted. What I want UTS and I see the whole sector going towards is how do we support people all the way through their post-secondary education. So someone coming from school is just as much a part of the UTS community as someone who’s been out for years, someone who’s changing careers 10 years down the track. Somebody who wants to do something else at the age of 65. All of those are now in the purview of how we need to support society. It sounds small. That is a huge, huge shift.

VICE-CHANCELLOR ATTILA BRUNGS: I can’t tell you. The whole approach of university needs to shift to tackle it, but that’s what society needs now. We have a strategy called UTS 2027. We figured we had a few years to get there. I think COVID’s brought it on a lot faster. We need to get to that model much quicker than we had in the past. That’s one. The second one, this is more linked to UTS, is around innovation. This is particularly for Australia, how are we going to drive jobs growth? Often you think as a Vice-Chancellor, I feel the need to make sure that we graduate 10,000 wonderful people a year to make sure that they’ve got all the skills they need to do whatever they go to. I also keenly feel that we need to create 10,000 new jobs for people to go to at least, if not more. Okay, so that’s why a lot of our strategy is shifted and how do we help create those jobs? We’ve got, you know, UTS student startups. We created 318 startups in the last 12 months. That’ll be helpful. But we’re working with the New South Wales government. How can we make that a thousand a year for the next three years? And each of those companies will employ between five to 10 people. That’s what we need to change. How do I help those wonderful people graduating every year have the innovation and entrepreneurial skills to create more jobs? So there’s a real shift for UTS, because I’m thinking about the economy five, 10, 15, 20 years out.

VICE-CHANCELLOR ATTILA BRUNGS: We need to drive jobs growth in very different ways we’ve driven it before. And where universities often only focus on providing the skills for those jobs. I think it’s now incumbent upon us to try and help create that whole ecosystem to drive jobs. The third one is all around, how do we engage in what I call a broader social justice mission, using the expertise of the universities. To be harsh on me and universities in the past, sometimes we had this great research, came up with wonderful theories. We wrote a paper about them. We maybe flicked them to government and hoped that government would do something about them and then sat back feeling warm and fuzzy that we’ve helped society. That time is long past. We have to use our knowledge, our existing knowledge, to actually engage with society for two reasons. One, because we’ve a lot of knowledge that can help society through challenges it’s facing. But two, to listen to society in ways we’ve never listened to before. Because unless we listen and engage in a very different way than we’ve done in the past, we’ll be providing solutions to problems no one really cares about. And that is a complete waste of time, money and resources at a period of history where we cannot afford to do that. And I think there’s a complete shift, particularly in the post-COVID world, on how do we engage with society in different ways to solve the problems that they need now.

THE HON. TANYA PLIBERSEK: These are all enormous changes to the traditional way universities have understood themselves as kind of creating knowledge and delivering education and then, as you said, sending people out into the world. There’s a kind of separation between knowledge generation and society. And the way you’ve been talking about universities blurs that boundary. I mean, is there a new social contract that is being written for the 21st century between universities, the state and the public?

VICE-CHANCELLOR ATTILA BRUNGS: I’d like to say it’s a social contract that merely changes the contract that universities have had with society for a long period. So in various parts of history, universities engage with societies in different ways for societal needs of that time. I suppose what I’m arguing in particular, I think in a post-COVID world, those need to radically different. Therefore we have to radically differ models of how we engage. So yeah, it could be a new social contract or could be this age’s social contract that the universities have. What doesn’t change is that we’re public institutions. What doesn’t change is that we exist for social good. At one point, universities became quite isolated places. It was fine if you went to university, worked at university, or benefit directly from research at university. That’s not good enough anymore. It has to be far more out there in the community as a whole. One of the things that I see with education changing and universities need to navigate our role in this, is I see a blurring with this lifetime learning between where people get their education. Very soon people may or may not start with university, may even start with a TAFE, then get some education from the workplace, then gets a private provider, then come back and do a microcredential or masters at university. But they’ll go through all of those throughout their learning journey and all of them are complementary. The problem is, there’s often been a hierarchy of education that needs to be blown up. And people have to understand there’s different types of education that will suit people at different points in their life. Do you know that Australia’s the OECD country where the businesses are putting less into developing their staff than anyone else and going backwards?

VICE-CHANCELLOR ATTILA BRUNGS: I’m not sure that helps our economy where we need to go, particularly at this point in time.

ASSOCIATE PROFESSOR TAMSON PIETSCH: And what about the settings that encourage those businesses to say, take responsibility for continuing to train their staff throughout a lifetime of development? What are we getting wrong there? Maybe to put the question a different way. What is your vision of what the policy settings should be coming from government around framing what those societal goals are?

VICE-CHANCELLOR ATTILA BRUNGS: So I think there’s three things that will influence them. First is the government settings. And I think the government does need to think through incentives for businesses around how do they build more development training. The second one, to tell you the truth, is just market forces. Those who start doing this well will flourish. Those who don’t are going to go out of business. There is certain brutality in market forces that I think the post-COVID world will really bring a sharp and pointy stick at.

VICE-CHANCELLOR ATTILA BRUNGS: And then this third one, I think there is actually becoming a new social contract between enterprise and society. Think about it through the early part of this century. There was a lot more understanding that government will provide this, government provide this and businesses are just about to make money. If they make as much money as possible, that’s good because it kind of trickles to everyone. I think a lot of businesses are already seeing is they realise that their role in society is much broader than that. They’ve got to engage with the sustainability agenda. They’ve got to engage with being a positive contribution to society more than just making money and making employment.

THE HON. TANYA PLIBERSEK: If you’re taking a long time horizon, that is a mechanism for change. But arguably, we don’t have a long time horizon when it comes to questions of sustainability and the climate challenge. The events over the summer brought home just how urgent some of these questions are. I mean, if COVID hadn’t erupted, we might be sitting here talking about the consequences of the bushfires. So what does thinking about climate do to the university’s mission?

VICE-CHANCELLOR ATTILA BRUNGS: The university tackles sustainability in three ways. So the first is, most importantly, how do we embed questions? A question, a curiosity an understanding of sustainability and its importance in our education. One of the core parts of university is you teach people how to think, how to critique, how to look beyond a Twitter feed. If you get that right, you’ll produce people who really can question, who can really critique or understand what’s going on. And more importantly, and this is for all of our education, understand the importance of taking responsibility and accountability for their actions. And that’s I think I know you may say that takes a long time, but believe me, I have seen people graduate within one year, two years. They’ve gone out and made a huge difference. So I am more optimistic than you that if you’ve got 10,000 people who’ve got the questioning bright minds, know how to critique, know how to find evidence, know how to make change, that’ll happen faster than you think. The second one is around research. We do a lot of research around sustainability. So how do we give society the solutions it needs and how do we help society understand that many of the solutions that they need are here now. There are so many techniques that we can use that can help our sustainable world. That don’t require 10 more years research. They exist now.

VICE-CHANCELLOR ATTILA BRUNGS: It’s just behavioral change. So there’s a big part of our mission, is how to make sure people understand the research, the tools. So UTS has been driving that as hard as we can. The third part is then as a university, we have to lead okay? So we have to make some tough decisions. Say, for example, a few years ago could be very easy for us to buy more green energy. Great, I’d have felt good about it. The students would have felt good about it. We’d have got green energy, which would help the environment. What we did instead was one of our academics in ISF spent a year going through the relatively byzantine team practices of buying and selling electricity in the market to find out a way that we could buy power for one particular provider. The reason why that was important is then we could invest in a solar farm in Singleton, in the Hunter Valley. That solar farm, we could give them a pre-contract. They could take the contract to the bank. The bank would give them a loan. And now they built a solar farm and we bought electricity directly. So that is a systems change. Now, there’s a number of universities in a number of businesses are doing that. So we have created a whole industry around very economically viable solar farms.

ASSOCIATE PROFESSOR TAMSON PIETSCH: And I suppose it means you’re thinking about the university as an entrepreneur in itself in a way. But I did want to ask you what you think the likely changes will be to the way the sector is organised. And I guess there’s many potential scenarios that might play out. There’s talk of mergers. There’s talk of smaller institutions. I mean, if we’re having this conversation in 10 years time, what do you think the higher education sector in Australia will look like

VICE-CHANCELLOR ATTILA BRUNGS: The most important question you should always ask yourself is why? To start off. And certainly the conversations I’ve seen around this, there’s not been any why. There’ve been answered before people have asked, “Why the hell would you do that?” Okay. And that disappoints me. What’s our new social contract? How do we deliver that more effectively? So let’s have those conversations first before we go anywhere near what we need, mergers. I mean, every article I’ve written that I’ve gone “why?” But I’ve seen so many mergers destroy more value than you could possibly poke a stick at. Especially when people don’t know why. So if I could ask you a question a different way, the why’s that I want are: One – We need to have an education that we do very well in Australia, we’ve done even better in the last few years of the Demand-Driven system, which is make sure we’ve got equitable access to our entire population for those who need and deserve university education or TAFE or VET education. That for me is the fundamental why, if we don’t get that right, it doesn’t matter what structure we are, we’ve stuffed our country. Okay, we’re not a big enough country that we can waste resources. We’re an incredibly rich country in our people assets.

VICE-CHANCELLOR ATTILA BRUNGS: And if we can make sure that there’s equitable access for all segments of society, that’s number one. Two, this new social contract you said, how can we use whatever shape, whatever business model we have to make sure we’re delivering what society needs, not what we think society needs. So in that case, if there’s bigger or smaller institutions, fine. As long as they’ve got that why in the case, okay. My biggest concern in the next little while is if you focus too much on costs, you can take yourself down a path that returns universities to a very elite, small mode of education. A lot of the commentary I’ve seen in the media at the moment would take Australia to a place where I’ll be quite blunt, the rich upper echelons of society get a great university education. Everyone else gets a poor education when there’s very much a schism in our society. Not only do you not need that from an equity point of view, not only do you not need that from an Australian culture point of view, that destroys economic value. In this post-COVID world, we need all of our resources, our incredible people resources working for our country’s prosperity and our national wellbeing.

ASSOCIATE PROFESSOR TAMSON PIETSCH: So what should publics, publics being industry, but also the students you’ve been talking about? What should they be demanding of universities on the one hand, but also governments on the other who are going to be setting these policy objectives?

VICE-CHANCELLOR ATTILA BRUNGS: One of the big things that I think all of them should be really aware of is how do we create a system that will support them getting their educational needs throughout their whole lives? We do not have enough education capacity in Australia either through universities, VET, private providers or business. Say my daughter, who’s 14, and I just know how much education she’s going to need through her life. At the moment, it’s not there. So what people should be demanding is how do we increase, I’m not saying more universities more in debt, but how do we create a system such that people can have that ability to educate, retrain, reskill, up skill throughout their life so they can make the best of themselves, but also are incredibly value contribution for society? That’s what we really need.

ASSOCIATE PROFESSOR TAMSON PIETSCH: I mean, there’s really only three kinds of sources of funding for that. There’s individuals, there’s governments and there’s industry. So what’s the funding mix that we should be looking towards? What responsibilities do individuals have to pay for that lifetime of retraining? What responsibilities should employers have? And where does the government come in?

VICE-CHANCELLOR ATTILA BRUNGS: Unfortunately I’m going to be very bad at answering in the view, my answer is yes to all of those. So, yes, it is. But I think the yes changes depending on who you are, perhaps what stage of your life, I can see more government contribution, like schools should be essentially free. Okay. But if you’re three quarters away through your career reskilling, I think you should bear more of the burden. If you’re an employer and you’ve got to do a huge workforce change that’s going to make lots of money for shareholders, the employer should bear more of the costs. So to me, it’s not as simple as which one of those three because it changes as you go through your lifetime, a learning journey. And I think we need to get a system that’s sophisticated enough to recognise that.

ASSOCIATE PROFESSOR TAMSON PIETSCH: Attila, what’s your vision for the future of higher education in the 21st century?

VICE-CHANCELLOR ATTILA BRUNGS: I am a great optimist. One of the things that I have seen in this COVID period is all of our universities and many of our public institutions respond in a way that you really would have hoped that they did. Okay. It’s nice to say this in good times, but they have responded in a way to make sure that they look after society. When I’ve got the millions of dollars of financial challenges and we provide a thousand meals a week for kids who can’t eat and we provide research to drive new jobs that we do now to invest more money into it. So what I would like to see is that ethos continue that creates, call it your new social contract, where our public institutions are fit for purpose to help our society prosper in the long term.

ASSOCIATE PROFESSOR TAMSON PIETSCH: If Vice-Chancellors like Attila are responsible for steering institutions, it is ultimately our politicians who determine the settings and the direction in which the university ship sails. Over the course of this podcast, we’ve talked several times about the shape those settings are taking under the Federal Coalition government. And that’s why I wanted to speak with Tanya Plibersek.

ASSOCIATE PROFESSOR TAMSON PIETSCH: Tanya is an alumna of UTS and she’s also the Shadow Minister for Education and Training. Tanya has served as Deputy Leader of the Labor Party and she’s been a Member of Parliament for Sydney for the past 22 years.

ASSOCIATE PROFESSOR TAMSON PIETSCH: We spoke on Tuesday, the 16th of June, just a few days before Minister Tehan announced his plans to redistribute the cost of degree programs. And it was a sitting week in Canberra.

PARLIAMENT SPEAKER DIVISION BELLS: Division required ring the bells for four minutes.

THE HON. TANYA PLIBERSEK: Hi, how are you Tamson?

ASSOCIATE PROFESSOR TAMSON PIETSCH: Thank you so much for doing this in the middle of an obviously busy sitting week.

THE HON. TANYA PLIBERSEK: No, that’s okay. The bells you can hear right now are bells for a Senate division, which is fine. I’m happy to just plow on through this, but if we have a House of Representatives division, we might have to take a little break while I go to the chamber and vote, okay?

ASSOCIATE PROFESSOR TAMSON PIETSCH: Sure, no trouble. Let’s plunge straight in then. As we know, the higher education sector is in trouble. You’ve described the government’s rescue package for universities as a fraud and you’ve condemned the exclusion of university staff from the Job Keeper scheme. Given the dire financial situation facing Australian universities and the number of jobs that are on the line, what assistance would a Labor government be offering to the sector?

THE HON. TANYA PLIBERSEK: Well, as you say, I’ve been very concerned about the estimated 21,000 jobs in the university sector that are at risk right now. And the one thing Dan Tehan could do is sit down with universities and work out how to keep those people working. They’re people that we will need in the university sector in coming months. I think the real problem with the government’s approach is that they keep changing the goalposts to ensure that universities receive no assistance, and that’s just not fair. Initially, they said universities would be treated as charities. They changed their minds within 48 hours and said, no, no universities will be treated as businesses. But when it became apparent some universities would qualify for Job Keeper payments if you treated them like any other business, the government changed the goalposts again to specifically exclude public universities. They actually made one more change that said, public universities would be excluded but private universities would be eligible for Job Keeper. It’s just not fair. Universities are really critical to us at this time, educating and training the next generation of professionals, but also for the research that we’ve been calling on universities to do during the COVID-19 crisis. Research into a vaccine treatment cure for the disease, but also thinking about the sort of jobs and economic boosts we’ll need to address the economic crisis that we’re facing.

ASSOCIATE PROFESSOR TAMSON PIETSCH: One of the things that Minister Tehan has said about universities, and he’s said it to The Australian newspaper recently, is that universities need to change their business model to focus more on domestic students and online education and a much greater alignment with industry. What do you think of that pivot?

THE HON. TANYA PLIBERSEK: Well, I think a lot of universities are saying it’s going to cost them money to provide these short courses. And it’s not clear that short courses will translate into qualifications that are valued by employers. So I’m not sure that the 20,000 short courses are quite the panacea that the Minister’s claimed that they are. I think it’s a bit rich for the Minister, the government to say we should be focusing more on domestic students when it’s this government that has actually capped the number of domestic students in our universities. And there’s no question that demand for student places will increase as unemployment increases. There’ll be a lot of people who think, well, I can either be searching for work or I can be getting an education that gives me a better chance of getting a better job. If the government’s not prepared to increase the places available to domestic students, then any talk of a pivot to greater concentration of domestic students is just window dressing, isn’t it?

ASSOCIATE PROFESSOR TAMSON PIETSCH: So as these potential students, people have been put out of work by the economic aspects of COVID-19 as they look to universities and potentially don’t find a place in them, what should they be demanding of government?

THE HON. TANYA PLIBERSEK: I think what universities and potential university students need to be demanding of government is an approach that says if you’re prepared to work hard, if you’re prepared to study hard, if you’ve got the capacity, there’ll be a place for you and that place will help you get a better job in the long run. I think what our society should be demanding of universities is that universities give as many people an opportunity to get a great education as possible, that that education doesn’t depend on where you live or who you are. It depends on your willingness and your capacity to work hard. So we know that universities are responsible for discovery, innovation. The research agenda of universities has been a huge driver of our economy. And I think at this time in particular, where we see research funding hitting absolutely rock bottom levels, that’s another area where the compact between the government, universities and our society needs re-evaluation.

ASSOCIATE PROFESSOR TAMSON PIETSCH: What might your plans look like that integrate not only VET and higher ed, but higher education generally with manufacturing, with the service sector? What does that kind of systems thinking look like and where can we begin to have that conversation?

THE HON. TANYA PLIBERSEK: Well, I think it’s very difficult to have that conversation when institutions are fighting for their survival. The truth is, maybe crisis delivers some innovation. But if all you’re doing is struggling to catch your next breath before the sort of roiling crisis of having to find voluntary redundancies in your organisation takes over again, it’s pretty hard to innovate effectively. So the first thing you need is leadership from government to say that this is important to us, that we need post-secondary school education working in a less siloed way in a way that really brings out the best in both sectors. That really is explicit about the fact that vocational education and universities are not in competition, but they are complementary institutions and that many Australians throughout their lives will have elements of their education delivered in either setting. And then you need to look at how businesses are interacting with universities. For example, you need to look at the settings of research and development tax concessions to see whether the settings as they are really deliver innovation and genuine additions to the body of knowledge that we have. Yeah, I think it’s actually a very exciting opportunity to work on.

ASSOCIATE PROFESSOR TAMSON PIETSCH: I mean, I think so but it’s really great to hear that from our Shadow Minister for Education. It seems to me that it’s a moment right now when our societies are facing massive challenges, but there’s also an enormous capacity to rethink the basis on which they’ve been structured. And as you say, the social settings that frame them too. Diversity and equity has been a big focus of yours. What does that mean in terms of the funding arrangements for universities?

THE HON. TANYA PLIBERSEK: Look, we have relied in recent years on international student revenue to do a whole lot of research, but also to cross subsidise the education of Australian students. If the Minister is serious about what he says about refocusing again on domestic students, there needs to be funding of extra places for Australian students that goes with that. We need to make a decision whether we as a community, as a society, as an economy, actually value the research that’s been going on in universities. If we actually value the research that we have to fund it. Again, we can’t continue to cross subsidise it and then criticise universities for an overreliance on international students. The Labor Party’s policy has always been that you shouldn’t miss out on a place in university because you can’t afford it or because you come from a particular suburb or regional town or country area. You shouldn’t miss out on university because you think you don’t belong there. We have to democratise our universities and make sure that every Australian feels that they’ve got a right to a university education if they’re prepared to work hard and study hard.

THE HON. TANYA PLIBERSEK: Unless you actually have money set aside to deliberately contact and open the world of opportunities to students who might be the first in their family to go to university, it doesn’t happen by accident and it happens by design. So we absolutely need to address the cap on student numbers. We can’t address that, incidentally, by making existing students pay more. Which I always worry that the government has in its back pocket as a solution, you know, we’ll increase student numbers as long as existing students are prepared to subsidise new students. But we also have to take deliberate action to reach out to people, communities, localities that are underrepresented in our higher education institutions. We’ve got some suburbs, you know, some towns where you’re five times less likely to go to university. You know, there’s a five fold difference between them, the most advantaged suburb’s university attendance and the least advantaged university attendance. It’s not cause, you know, these people are five times smarter. It’s about opportunity. And it’s simply not right to have a taxpayer funded system where such inequities exist.

ASSOCIATE PROFESSOR TAMSON PIETSCH: Some Vice-Chancellors might say it’s only partly a taxpayer funded system. I mean, there’s only really three pots of money. There’s government, there’s individuals and there’s maybe industry in business. Where should the money be coming from in enabling those equity pathways?

THE HON. TANYA PLIBERSEK: I think it’s a really good investment from taxpayers because it’s not just about the individual benefit for students. We know that there is a graduate premium. It’s not as high as it once was. But you’re still talking about an average 12 or 14 thousand dollar difference. I still support students paying a contribution to their education, but there is a benefit to our society and our economy of having a highly educated, highly skilled workforce. We know that the jobs that are being created in coming years, you’ll need either a tape qualification or university qualification for nine out of 10 of those jobs. Unskilled jobs that require no post secondary school education are rare, and they are by and large these days, insecure and low paid. So if we want to give people the ability to support themselves decently, you know giving them the opportunity of an education is important. That means that we’re holding back our economic recovery. If we don’t have the skilled people to do the work as it becomes available. So it’s not just an investment in the individual. It’s an investment that all of us benefit from. And that’s aside from the public benefit of the intellectual endeavour and research output of Australian universities. And it’s just incidentally, it’s aside also from the practical day to day economies that universities are part of. If you look at what’s happened at the moment as international students haven’t been able to return to Sydney. We’re talking about the suburbs around UTS, look how empty the restaurants are. Look at what’s happening to rental properties in the area. It is catastrophic if we continue down the path where we’re missing thousands of students. The long term economic impact of that is obvious to our national prosperity. But even the short term economic impact of that is really substantial. And that is bad enough in a central Sydney CBD where we’ve got other people who are using those services. But you take a university campus out of a regional town, it has a big impact.

ASSOCIATE PROFESSOR TAMSON PIETSCH: So what then does it mean to be a public university in the 21st century?

THE HON. TANYA PLIBERSEK: I think it probably means much the same as it did a thousand years ago in Morocco, where the first university was, or Bologna, where the first European university was. It’s a nourishing of the individual and a nourishing of our society. That’s the responsibility of universities if you strip it all away. It’s giving every person the opportunity of developing their mind, their spirit, their understanding of the world, their passions. But it’s also giving us as a society a way of developing our economic wealth, but our intellectual wealth as well.

ASSOCIATE PROFESSOR TAMSON PIETSCH: Across the country, Vice-Chancellors like Attila Brungs are trying to steer their institutions through a crisis that continues to unfold. They’re doing so in different ways with different priorities. But all of them are making decisions in the present whilst attempting to peer into a foggy and uncertain future. There are a lot of factors contributing to that uncertainty. Will international students return? How much debt can be sustained? What will happen to research funding? But one thing that would make it easier to act in the present is a clear plan for what universities should do in the future. What are universities in Australia for? The answer to that question will shape the kind of system that we get, and that’s why it matters that we all raise our voices about the kind of higher education our society needs. As university workers, as students, as communities, as members of institutions that have perhaps forgotten how to act together, as people with kids who look to the future with increasing anxiety. And above all, as citizens. We need our universities and we need a way forward. We need a plan for the future that is fit for the challenges we face.

ASSOCIATE PROFESSOR TAMSON PIETSCH: Thanks to both of my guests on this, the second last episode of The New Social Contract podcast, where we’ve been talking about how the relationship between universities, the state and the public might be reshaped as we live through the OOVID-19 pandemic and beyond. Sincere thanks to Professor Attila Brungs, Vice-Chancellor and President of the University of Technology, Sydney, and the Honourable Member for Sydney, Tanya Plibersek, the Federal Shadow Minister for Education and Training. I’d also like to extend our thanks to the Parliamentary Broadcasting Office in Canberra, who sent us a recording of the division bell. To continue the conversation we’ve been having here, head over to Twitter. You can find us there @TNSCpod or send us an email at

ASSOCIATE PROFESSOR TAMSON PIETSCH: Next time on The New Social Contract podcast, it’s our final episode. We’ll take a look at what we’ve learned across the series. And for regular listeners, a familiar voice will be joining me. Dr. Gwilym Croucher, who you heard back in Episode Two.

DR GWILYM CROUCHER: I’m an academic and researcher in the Melbourne Center for the Study of Higher Education. I’m recording from a very warm study in a very wet Melbourne.

ASSOCIATE PROFESSOR TAMSON PIETSCH: Will’s going to help me spitball a few hypothetical scenarios for the future of higher education. Thanks for listening to The New Social Contract. Until next time, I’m Tamson Pietsch.

FEMALE VOICE OVER: The interview with the Vice-Chancellor Attila Brungs took place on Tuesday, June 9, and the interview with Tanya Plibersek, Shadow Minister for Education and Training, was recorded on Tuesday, June 16, 2020.

MALE VOICE OVER: The New Social Contract is a podcast series made by Impact Studios at the University of Technology, Sydney. The production team live on the lands of the Gadigal people of the Eora nation whose lands were never ceded.


Podcast playlist


8. The future of higher education – who will set the settings?

July 12 · 44 MIN

In the season finale of The New Social Contract, host Tamson Pietsch is joined by Dr Gwilym Croucher, Senior Lecturer at the Melbourne Centre for the Study of Higher Education, to consider for the final time how the relationship between universities, the state and the public might be reshaped as we live through the COVID-19 pandemic.

In this episode we look beyond Federal Education Minister Tehan’s proposals to ask three questions:

  1. What is the vision for higher education that lies behind the Coalition Government’s plans?
  1. What bigger questions about universities do they raise?
  1. What might be some of the other ways those questions could be answered?

6. Universities and Communities – who should they serve?

July 12 · 43 MIN

Who is it that makes up the constituencies of a 21st century university? And what should different sections of the public be demanding from those institutions?

These questions go to the core of higher education’s purpose. Do universities create communities – or do communities create universities? And why might we be seeing the answers to these questions change?

Thanks to The New Social Contract episode six guests:

Matthew Cox Director of Logan Together, a whole-of-community initiative based at Griffith University and within the Logan community

And Professor Jim Nyland – Chair of Engagement Australia and Associate Vice-Chancellor Brisbane at the Australian Catholic University.


5. Universities and the nation’s workforce

July 12 · 57 MIN

What kinds of work will we be doing in 2040? What industries will still be going strong and which will have fallen away?

The training and education we need now will depend on the kinds of work – the industries and services – around which, as a nation we want to build our economy and society.

Australia is facing possibly the worst economic downturn in its history. So how should that sobering prospect reshape the relationship between universities, government and society – including industry?

Thanks to The New Social Contract episode five guests

Alison Pennington, a Senior Economist at the Centre for Future Work at The Australia Institute


Megan Lilly, is head of Workforce Development at the Australian Industry Group (or AIG) – Australia’s peak industry association.

The news grabs and additional audio in this episode of The New Social Contract podcast came from the following sites:

‘From Back in Black to recession’, reported on AM, ABC, June 4, 2020.

’The recession we couldn’t avoid’ on RN Breakfast with Fran Kelly, Abc, June 4, 2020.

‘Treasurer Josh Frydenberg says Australia has officially entered recession’ from ABC News, June 2 2020.

‘Treasurer warns the worst is yet to come as Australia’s economy enters recession’ from ABC News, June 3 2020.

The Paris Riots of 1968 ‘French students again clash with riot police, Paris, France’, published by British Pathe on Youtube.

‘The May 1968 protests that paralysed France’, published on Witness, by the BBC.

‘May 1968 Paris Riots’ on The History Hour, published by the BBC.