Ian Young: Australia’s knowledge future and how we can pay for it

Great universities can and should play a role in shaping the future of our nation. ANU vice-chancellor Professor Ian Young says there is much Australia can learn from the models of research funding in the US and Germany.

This is an edited extract of the 2015 Menzies Oration, given by ANU vice-chancellor Professor Ian Young in Melbourne on September 8, 2015.

It is widely acknowledged that Sir Robert Menzies played a major role in the development of the Australian Higher Education system. When Menzies came to power in 1939, there were six universities and 14,000 students. By the time he retired in 1966 this had grown to 16 universities and 90,000 students. Between 1955 and 1966, funding for universities increased 10 fold.

Menzies himself saw his contribution in this regard as significant. Speaking here at the University of Melbourne in 1965 he said “My life has devoted itself for years to the development of education in this country”. He also indicated that his government marked the “beginning of a new revolution in the university world”. Menzies also appreciated the important role universities should play in research. Whilst in Opposition in 1945, Menzies stated that “the research aspect of university work needs to be brought into the very forefront of our educational thinking”. It is this research element of universities I wish to explore further.

Australia presently faces challenging economic times. After more than a decade of dependence on the investment phase of the mining boom, slowing Chinese growth and declining resources prices have ended what economist Ross Garnaut termed Australia’s “salad days”. A period of budget surplus, repeated tax cuts and increasing middle-class welfare. A period where the high Australian dollar, high labour costs and declining productivity has cut a swathe through Australian manufacturing. After a 2014-15 budget deficit of $41bn the deficit for 2015-16 is forecast to be around $35bn. Based on treasury figures the budget will return to surplus in 2019-20.

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