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A worthwhile public investment

A national internship scheme may be the key to retaining and enhancing Australia’s world-class higher education system, says Glenn Withers.
Australia has been remarkably innovative in tertiary education, even though we tend to understate our achievements. Yet from HECS to dedicated broadband, IELTS to quality assurance, distance learning to international student recruitment, and above all through the world-class scholarship of numerous individual researchers, innovative we have been.
It is for this reason that Universities Australia was less surprised than some to see a recent Lisbon Council report place Australia’s higher education system as the best in the world. We too had done similar calculations. In the THE and Shanghai Jiao Tong counts, for instance, a greater share of our universities have appeared in the rankings than for almost any other country.
The Bradley review itself accepted on the basis of journalist John Gerritson’s research that our system may in fact be number three. This should be a source of genuine pride for all those academics whose talents and whose heavy workloads have enabled this to be so. But such rankings are always challengeable and as the Bradley report made clear, our position is now slipping. Recent indicators show that any lead we have is diminishing all too rapidly and that the situation is at a tipping point. In 2005, 17 Australian universities ranked in the THE’s top 200. By 2008 that number had fallen to nine.
Less government regulation and more government investment are the key components of restoring a better balanced system that can remain world class.
But if the public sector returns to investing in higher education, so must the universities offer partnership. There is a reciprocal responsibility for taking the queen’s shilling. Part of that is ensuring that the core functions of curiosity-driven research, socially critical thinking and cultural enhancement continue and are protected, including from forces within as well as outside the universities.
What can universities themselves contribute further to the future under mutual responsibility obligations? Already universities do contribute mightily to the national bottom line: economy, environment, society and culture.
There is more again that can be offered. Examples will abound. But one worth mentioning is in the area of teaching methods, and specifically the case of work-integrated learning.
Of course, all universities do this and most without self-conscious articulation. Certainly clinical placements are an integral component of professional training. More can be done here, and Professor Nicholas Saunders, vice-chancellor of the University of Newcastle, is chairing a clinical placements advisory group for Universities Australia to do just this for the medical and allied health professions.
More could be achieved in areas where such work links are less common. A proposal for a national internships scheme to facilitate work integrated learning was issued by Universities Australia as a discussion paper in November 2007. It was followed by wide consultations, significant industry dialogue, and a final position paper in May 2008.
The intention was both to improve curriculum and income support options for students and to enhance employer satisfaction with graduate attributes. The initiative had responded to a September 2007 request from the then Opposition Leader Kevin Rudd for a paper on this theme. It is therefore hoped that some government policy action on this front may indeed be forthcoming.
As an indication of potential, Universities Australia is working with the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet in establishing a work experience scheme that, in its first incarnation, drew 689 applications. We are also supporting Business South Australia and the three Adelaide universities in developing a pilot research internship scheme so that, as the proposed government support does come online, the implementation issues will have been tested thoroughly. As the current economic climate worsens for student employment, the support of such schemes becomes essential as part of any jobs strategy for government.
Naturally individual universities do much along these lines themselves. And a clear momentum to do more is evident.
For example, there is the adoption of university-wide commitments to work-related learning such as Victoria University’s requirement that 25 per cent of every course consist of work-integrated learning and Macquarie University’s requirement that all undergraduates include a community development component in their degrees. The University of South Australia has adopted a goal for one-third of all programs to be experiential. Griffith University has a targeted 70 per cent of degree programs to have a workplace component by 2010.
The ACT Government has initiated Student Connect, a new paid internships scheme for final year international students at the ANU, University of Canberra and Canberra Institute of Technology..
In October, Australia hosted the World Association for Cooperative Education (WACE) Asia Pacific Conference in Sydney. The president of WACE is Professor Ian Goulter, vice-chancellor of Charles Sturt University. Australia’s achievements in this rapidly growing field were strongly commended by participants.
Australia is similarly rich in supporting organisations, such as the Australian Association of Graduate Employers (AAGE); Graduate Careers Australia (GCA); the Australian Universities Community Engagement Alliance (AUCEA); the National Association of Graduate Careers Advisory Services (NAGCAS); the Australian Community Engagement Network (ACEN); and more.
Overseas governments have made strong representations to Australian authorities to enhance access to work-integrated learning options as a feature of the higher education arrangements with countries including China, India, Thailand, Indonesia and Malaysia. There are proposals to extend Universities Australia initiatives with Chile and France to include internships. Australian higher education is already seen as a leader in work integrated learning and the Australian Government has responded through some visa changes, such as allowing a post-graduation work experience extension.
What we now need is more systematic cooperation with universities by employers in the business, government and community sectors to sustain and expand these opportunities.
In its 2009 budget submission, Universities Australia reiterated its call for a national internship scheme seeking to encourage just such partnership. At a time when work-readiness and skills enhancement will be more essential than ever, such a scheme can substantially assist economic recovery and sustainable growth.
Universities Australia has found widespread support among business, the professions and universities for this initiative, which can go forward at modest cost to the federal budget, with an assessed investment return well ahead of that cost. The scheme readily meets the Reserve Bank governor’s “worthwhile public investment” test for good policy.
Through initiatives such as this, and many others, the standing of Australia’s innovative higher education system can be retained and enhanced, helping to provide solutions for difficult times.
Dr Glenn Withers, AO, is chief executive of Universities Australia.

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