What we learned at the UA Conference

CMM asked Universities Australia and they replied

If the UA Conference taught us anything, it is that in these COVID-uncertain times, prior planning has to cover a great many possible scenarios.

Like university timetable schedulers, the organisers had to plan for all eventualities. The latest lockdown in Victoria prevented around 150 delegates from attending, along with a clutch of speakers and presenters, but the hybrid in-person and on-line format allowed the show to go on with remarkably few hiccups.

The conference also focused on how our competitors for the international student market are stealing a march while Australia’s borders remain firmly closed. Australia’s Ambassador to the US, Arthur Sinodinos, told participants that American universities are planning to re-open for in-person tuition for the new academic year and the State Department is working on visa processing for international students.

The ambassador also outlined how the Biden Administration was working on issues such as economic/racial inequality, infrastructure and future competitiveness, with big implications for universities. Australian universities need to be aware of these changes so that we can take advantage of significant new opportunities for strengthened collaboration in key areas such as defence research, space and energy.

Education Minister Alan Tudge shared his top priorities: the government’s research commercialisation agenda; international education – where the focus is on the strategic medium-term level, rather than the immediate return of overseas students; the domestic student experience; and freedom of speech along with freedom of academic inquiry.

Shadow Education Minister Tanya Plibersek said universities hadn’t received favourable treatment by the government. “Casinos got wage subsidies. But universities didn’t.” She promised Labor would work with universities to ensure “every Australian kid who works hard and gets the marks should have a chance to go to university – if they want to.” Unis would also have access to Labor’s $15bn national reconstruction fund to “translate your brilliant discoveries and inventions into new Australian businesses and new Australian jobs”.

We also saw that innovation, ingenuity and a passion for new knowledge are alive and well among the university research community. The two eloquent winners of the Universities Australia’s annual Pitch It Clever competition showed how even complex, challenging concepts can be succinctly – and compellingly – presented to the broader public.

The winners were Elise Ajay, a researcher from The University of Melbourne, who won the Vice-Chancellor’s Award for her presentation on the future of bionic hearing while the Universities Australia Award went to Diego Holanda Pereira de Souza from Curtin University for his pitch on safer, cheaper and longer-lasting batteries.