Significant growth in research and development investment and the transformation of universities over the past two decades have put Australia in a strong position, however the momentum must be continued if Australia is to become a global education hub.
The In the Zone conference at The University of Western Australia today was told that Asia, and in particular China, was investing heavily in its higher education sector.
"Australia faces accelerated competition to our north. This is not just a China story - South Korea and India have both leapfrogged Australia in the number of academic publications produced," said Dr Thomas Barlow, Research Strategist, Thomas Barlow Advisory Services.
Dr Barlow said there were now 2400 university institutions in China, and more Chinese institutions in the top 500 universities globally than there were Australian universities altogether. "It is only a matter of time before Chinese institutions start to displace Australian institutions from the top 100 group," he said.
"China is the second-most productive country in term of research publications, and Chinese scientists are producing more research publications in physics and chemistry than Americans."
Dr Barlow said Australia had emerged as a significant regional hub for education services and research. "Given trends over past 20 years and opportunities for economic ties with Asia, we have the potential to be a global hub for education services and research," he said.
"However we have some clear challenges ahead of us. Our institutions have a focus on a model that is a high throughput process - a commodity model which is vulnerable to changes in exchange rates, changes in fashion and disruption by digital distribution technologies."
Australia's challenge was to remain competitive by providing quality offerings and being distinctive.
Professor Don Markwell, Executive Director, Menzies Research Centre, told the conference that a number of dichotomies faced the global education and research sector, among them the austerity measures being undertaken in many economies, including cuts to university teaching, increased student fees and Research and Development (R&D) funding reductions. These detracted from areas of growth and the need for education and research in particular industries.
The notion of liberal education versus vocation-specific study was coming under the spotlight in countries such as the United States, with the traditional four-year liberal arts undergraduate degree ahead of post-graduate speciality study being examined.
Campus-based education or online learning was a further issue that would be the subject of debate in coming years, Professor Markwell said.
He predicted that expectations of the role of universities would change, with universities fulfilling the role of finding solutions to topical issues such as the environment, gender equality and productivity.
Professor Paul Johnson, Vice-Chancellor, UWA, outlined a number of fundamental changes that would occur in the university sector in coming years as higher education became increasingly regarded as a business sector.
Changes would include the growing number of private sector education providers, new commercial imperatives and the development of online learning.
"We need to take the time to understand how we are going to embrace the changes and how will we minimise the time and effort spent resisting these changes," Professor Johnson said.
In the Zone is an intensive meeting of national and international leaders from the business, government and academic sectors.
With the theme ‘The Geography of Global Prosperity', the conference provides an opportunity for discussion and debate about the increasingly complex global neighbourhood and key policy questions facing Australia and the region.
The conference follows the success of the 2009 In the Zone Conference and the 2011 Business Forum.
For more information about the In the Zone conference: www.zone.uwa.edu.au