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The knowledge revolution

Posted January 31, 2011 in category General by Heather CROSLING

As my last entry on this site before departing Swinburne, I don't think it appropriate for me to talk about the University or its future (which I believe is very positive). Rather, I thought I might comment on the role I believe Australia's Universities should play in the development of the nation.

Australia is in an envious position compared to almost any other country in the world. We have weathered the GFC in good shape and with a deficit which is manageable. Secondly, as long as countries such as China and India continue their remarkable economic growth, the minerals boom will continue to power the Australian economy. Whether we ultimately have a resources rent tax or not, Australia's mineral wealth will mean that, compared to other developed economies, Australia will be relatively prosperous.

This prosperity will, however, bring its own challenges. It is likely that Australia will see a decade of relative affluence and a high currency. Whilst mineral exports will continue at high levels, the resulting high Australian dollar will place all other exports under great stress. Manufacturing, agriculture, tourism, education will all be export industries which will be challenged. Unless carefully handled, Australia could see the resources boom finally end and discover we have few competitive export industries remaining. The 'two-speed' economy will have wiped them out.

The key to such a situation is for the nation to use this decade of prosperity to invest in the future to re-tool and re-skill Australia for the next period of its development. Australia would do well to look to countries which have built dynamic economies whilst having high costs of living and highly valued currencies. Examples are Germany, the Netherlands and the Scandinavian countries. These countries have build prosperity on high value-add industries where knowledge and high-end skills give them a competitive advantage. Australia needs to move our industries up the value chain. We need to develop industries which rely on creativity and knowledge.

The real question will be whether our politicians can take such a long-term view. Can we position Australia for a knowledge revolution and build a nation which is highly educated, willing to openly debate challenging issues and has an R&D capability the envy of the world? Unlike other countries, Australia will have this decade of affluence to set the nation up for the future. We cannot afford to squander this opportunity.

Universities must play a central role in such a nation-building vision. Universities need to educate this next generation and develop the research to under-pin this knowledge revolution. Of course, success is not guaranteed and many parts of society must play a part. Taxpayers would need to accept that short term tax cuts were being traded off against long term investment. Universities and university staff would also need to understand that they have a role to play in nation building rather than just seeking knowledge for knowledge sake.

These are all challenging issues; they will take real political leadership and social commitment. Universities must support this debate and assist in fashioning the future Australia. We have a unique opportunity which we should not let escape.

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