Any strategic exit out of the pandemic must have education and skills investment at its core
Australia has an economy that's not working for all Australians, with limited levers to pull; a school system declining relative to other countries; a higher-education sector underfunded and overreliant on international students and a STEM sector facing research and development cuts, poor industry planning and large job losses.
Through the trials of World War II and the immediate post-war years, prime ministers Curtin and Chifley had a comprehensive vision. In a country burdened by war debt, at 120 per cent of GDP, they chose not to shrink inwardly but to invest strategically in the future. They established universities, invested in skills for returned service people, guaranteed employment for all, opened Australia to millions of migrants, founded new industries and built nation-building infrastructure. Whitlam, too, had a vision to transform Australia, as did Hawke and Keating in the mid-1980s - each to meet the trying circumstances of the times.
The policy challenges of our era, both today and in the medium term, are of a similar magnitude and complexity. There is, though, a pathway for recovery with education and science sitting at its heart. If navigated well, it can bring our economy back from recession, build the productive workforce and the skill sets we need for the future and provide improved strategic independence.
Even before the global pandemic hit our shores, there were inherent problems with our economy and longstanding homegrown weaknesses.
The nation's debt had doubled from $280 billion to $568 billion since 2013, our economy had gone from the eighth fastest-growing economy in the OECD in the Labor years to the 20th, and long-term unemployment and underemployment remain stubbornly high.
Over in our schools, there were some good individual stories as targeted needs-based funding was rolling out, but at the system level outcomes were flatlining.
The Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) demonstrated the global and local problem. Australian students recorded their lowest results in reading, maths and science since testing began.
Students were around a year behind their international peers in these subjects. For the first time ever, Australia's performance in maths was no better than the global average.
Although ranking must be considered within country contexts, the results clearly showed that our brightest students are not performing at the level of their peers overseas.
In the higher education sector, the challenges were more nuanced. The sector was in the black, however this relied on fee-paying, mostly international, students.
For example, in the face of stagnating research grants, the university sector was using largely international students to enable an almost doubling of R&D funding.
Moreover, with Commonwealth Grants Scheme funding for student places frozen, the university sector turned to international students as the only other fast-growing source of revenue available.
The growth of the international student market has been of benefit to the national economy, to many regional economies, to our research and innovation output and to the students themselves. However, the reliance by universities and the government on the capital brought by international students has exposed issues with the funding and growth of the sector.
This reliance has exposed the sector and government to the real risk of the tap being turned off, damaging universities' financial viability, research and development, our innovation pipeline and the sizeable economic activity associated with accommodating and caring for the student base.
Moreover, as a nation, we were inviting a strategic risk with a model built on the assumption that supply is certain, without caveats, and not open to any political influence.
Closely associated with our university system is our science and research sector. Like the education sector and the economy more broadly, it too was not without challenges pre-coronavirus. Its contribution to life and economy, as Ian Chubb said in 2015, is easy to take for granted.
Despite the critical role played across industry sectors, government science and research organisations such as the CSIRO and the Defence Science Technology Group continue to be cut and hollowed out. Their budgets are constrained and their scientists, engineers and support staff continue to be contracted out.
More broadly, job opportunities for university science graduates have failed to match the push to get more students to study STEM subjects. This is not surprising when governments themselves continue to erode their own science and engineering capability. If we value STEM skills, we need to also invest in STEM careers.
With the arrival of the pandemic, we turned to our research workforce for their expertise and we witnessed high regard for such expertise in the public domain. While this was promising, it must be translated into greater ongoing support for Australia's science and research sector.
Yet income to universities, medical research institutes, publicly funded research agencies and the industrial sector are suffering from the loss of international students and a sharp decline in business research spending and philanthropy.
Australia needs a pathway for inclusive growth that is deliberate, planned and smart. Australia's chief scientist Dr Alan Finkel has suggested such a pathway, arguing that "there are several ways to improve productivity but knowledge capital ... is the most significant factor."
This pathway requires an investment by government in providing career paths and opportunities that rebuild our knowledge capital. A substantial investment in entry and mid-career-level technical and professional roles is critical to address skill deficiencies across government and across industry reliant on the public purse.
This opinion piece was first published in The Canberra Times on Thursday, 14 January 2021.