Australia's Chief Scientist

Opinion: Restore maths, boost VET and collaborate with business

“The success of our universities is not a matter of chance. If it’s a game, it’s a game of strategy: one that Australian Vice-Chancellors have played extraordinarily well.”

Australia’s Chief Scientist, Dr Alan Finkel, has written an article on the university sector and how we can change the deck to improve education outcomes for all young Australians. The article was published in The Australian Financial Review on 5 March 2018.

The full text of the article is available below.


I recently came across a board-game called Power Grid. It’s like Monopoly for electricity: each player represents an energy company that bids for power plants, and then competes to supply the market.

It got me thinking. What we really need is a board-game about building and running a university.

Here’s how I imagine the game would be played. Every player is a Vice-Chancellor. Every round, to make more money, you have to enrol more students. But don’t forget: you have to make them happy and employable. And you can’t do that at the expense of your research facilities, because then your global ranking would fall, causing your student numbers to slide, eating into your budget, and sending you back to Square One.

Then throw in some wildcards.

A train line is built to your campus: double your student intake. An election is called: spin the wheel of fate.

Get Out of Jail Free… if only.

The fun could go on for hours!

But I hope the game would also be educational – and a reminder that the success of our universities is not a matter of chance. If it’s a game, it’s a game of strategy: one that Australian Vice-Chancellors have played extraordinarily well.

I don’t see a sector being dragged backwards into the modern world. I see universities embracing the modern world, and re-inventing themselves.

Universities still have plenty of scope to lift their game, if the country comes on board.

If there’s one thing that I hear more often than anything else, it’s this: bring back mathematics prerequisites for courses where a knowledge of mathematics is required. A close-run second would be: let’s have a better conversation about the role of the ATAR.

I know that universities see the ATAR as a means to select students. On the other hand, students see the ATAR as the goal. They pick the subjects that boost their score, instead of those that develop the most appropriate skills.

Ask any Year 10 student: how do you boost your ATAR? You drop down a level in mathematics.

We end up with an absurd situation. Students pick easy mathematics because they want to get the ATAR for engineering. They get into engineering and they struggle because the mathematics isn’t easy.

The burden should not have to fall on university lecturers to retrofit fundamental knowledge and skills through bridging courses that are simply no substitute for years of learning at school.

The system endorses the ATAR for the same reason that board-games makers put an age range on the box: so buyers can make appropriate choices.

But the guidance to students is failing. It is time to transform, not defend.

Where else could we improve? To play strategically, we need a better scorecard. In particular, we could do something about the way that the statistics on university collaboration with industry are reported.

Universities Australia reports that 16,000 businesses have formal collaborations with Australian universities. That number is 30 times higher than the collaborations Australia last reported to the OECD.

It turns out that the collaboration rankings in the OECD are determined not by aggregating data from research institutions, but by business surveys; and we do ours differently than the Europeans.

Efforts are made to align the two. But because of methodological differences, we still come off very much the worse, landing consistently – and unfairly – at the bottom of the pack.

Should we collaborate more? Undoubtedly. But let’s also get better at helping the world keep score; and learning from our own success.

Finally, we could reappraise the relationship between universities and the vocational education and training sector. In recent months I’ve been talking to companies about the science and technologies programs they offer in schools. They all want to talk to me about VET.

They say it’s critical. They mean critical in both senses: critical as in “vital”, and “critical” as in “extremely unwell”.

A cynic might say that VET’s loss is university’s gain. In a narrow sense it might be true, but as far as the nation is concerned, it’s definitely not as it should be.

Employers grasp that VET and universities have complementary strengths. Witness the success of digital apprenticeships for Australian mining, and cybersecurity diplomas for Australian banks and fintech. There are many paths to the future, and they don’t all require degrees. So let’s play for the jobs of the future as Higher Education United.

This game is ours to win.