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Professor Alan Robson, Vice-Chancellor, The University of Western Australia, writes about the opportunities and challenges - and suggests some likely solutions - for higher education in globalised economies.
By global standards, Australia is a wealthy nation, rich in natural resources backed by a civil society.
Australia's long-term economic growth, job creation and quality of life will be reliant on continuing to develop an ‘innovation culture' which encourages creativity in all forms of research, promotes collaboration between university researchers and industry, and disseminates the benefits of research to the wider community.
During this bicentenary of the birth of Charles Darwin it is perhaps fitting to remember one of his telling statements: It is not the strongest of the species that survive, nor the most intelligent, but the one most responsive to change. In this regard, adaptation, flexibility, imagination and innovation are the contemporary watch words - not just for industry and business, but for universities too.
Certainly, the renewed focus on higher education, science and research capacity following the last Federal election has highlighted the importance of the capacity to capitalise on change as a vital ingredient of the higher education sector's future development.
A World Bank declaration some years ago that "tertiary education is more than the capstone of the traditional education pyramid; it is a critical pillar of human development worldwide" acknowledges that higher education is critical to addressing successfully the unprecedented challenges arising from the convergent impacts of globalisation, the increasing importance of knowledge as a principal driver of growth, and the information and communication revolution.
The role of education in general, and of tertiary education in particular, is now more critical than ever in the construction of knowledge economies and civil societies.
In this light, there has been some redefinition of the role of universities, and a move among leading universities to refresh their course offerings to equip their students for the needs of a new era of rapid change, of global forces, and of an unprecedented growth of knowledge. This is aimed at strengthening teaching, learning, and improving the overall student learning experience.
As part of this process there has been renewed attention to how Australian degrees compare with degrees in Europe (under the Bologna process), in the US (with its top-end model of four-year liberal arts degrees preceding professional postgraduate education), and in various Asian countries, many of which are actively selecting what they see as the world's best systems, especially from the US and UK.
At The University of Western Australia, we have high international aspirations and have established a new a structure for our degrees which offers students the kind of education they need for new eras as well as providing the communities we serve with well-educated graduates who will play a significant role in the social, cultural and economic development of those communities. In this way, we are bringing together the redefinition of roles with support for an innovative culture and the education needs of new generations of students.
The new courses re-emphasise the importance of research, acknowledging that as economies become increasingly knowledge-based and globalised, academic research and scientific technological efforts will be the essential determinants of social and economic growth, including industrial performance and international competitiveness.
While Australia may only generate a small proportion of the world's new knowledge, it remains a significant contribution, not least for the fact that it ensures we have access to the global intellectual effort that is shaping our future. The key to our contribution is the existence of a healthy university system capable of participating actively in the international networks at the leading edge of research.
But a knowledge economy does not just happen because we have decided in its favour. Saying and doing are not so easily bought together. A knowledge economy grows out of a culture of innovation which only a limited number of nations have so far been able to propagate.
Not that there is any great mystery as to the ingredients or compounds of that culture. A vital and healthy science base is prerequisite, along with the ability to grow basic research and applied research outcomes, as well as technological capacity. A highly developed education system - particularly a higher education system - capable of producing citizens who are also flexible and creative workers, is a further prerequisite. And there's the need for a governmental regulatory environment which rewards high-quality innovative research.
Most challenging of all is the harsh reality that a knowledge economy will not result from quick-fix policies. A sustained and long term commitment to all these factors is required - a hard ask when so much of our political and business processes are focused rather on the short-term and the immediate result.
What better place to start than in our own region? The lesson of geography is that our time zone is shared by 60 per cent of the world's population, and the nations whose growth and development promise to shape the 21st century.
Perhaps because of this geographical relationship, there has been a strong sense within Western Australia generally - and certainly at The University of Western Australia - of the importance of international outreach and engagement.
There can be no doubt of the benefits - economic, as well as social and cultural - in continuing to expand and strengthen our connections in this region.
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