‘Give people time’ to readjust from pandemic, says Jackson

People ‘backing off’ from higher education should ‘have another look’, says departing Universities Australia boss

December 15, 2023
A sign welcomes people back outside the Sydney Opera House  in Sydney, Australia to illustrate ‘Give people time’ to readjust from pandemic, says Jackson
Source: Getty Images

Students and staff still bear the “scars” of Covid, and it will “take a while before everyone’s comfortable in their own skin again”, according to outgoing Universities Australia chief executive Catriona Jackson.

Ms Jackson, who leaves her post on 22 December, said workplaces everywhere were readjusting to “post-lockdown” environments and universities were no different. Contradictory messages from students, who bemoaned online classes but failed to appear when face-to-face lessons resumed, were understandable during a settling-in period.

“You find real variation across different university campuses about the extent to which everybody’s come back. That isn’t peculiar to universities. In workplaces…all around the world [you find] quite different ways of returning to the office or not returning to the office. For some people, that is more complex than it is for others. We just need to give people a little bit of time.”

She rejected suggestions of public “disenchantment” with higher education. “Demand is soft for universities at the moment for one really clear reason: it’s really easy to get a job. If you’re a second-year kid doing IT and you get offered 200,000 bucks to work for Google, what are you going to do?

“I’d argue, finish your degree. But I can fully understand that a 19-year-old might think, ‘I’ll take the money for a while.’ We need to…make sure those kids understand they can come back and finish their degree later.”

Australian statistics suggest that the softening of demand for credentials, particularly at master’s level, began some years before the labour market boom. Research also shows that the salary advantages of higher education are waning.

But Ms Jackson said young and “not so young” Australians should “think really hard” about tertiary education. “If you’re going to have a more fulfilling job with better compensation, a post-school education is really, really important. All the stats are telling us this. You just need a higher level of education these days to get a job. If the population is backing off from that, I’d argue they want to have another look.”

She said cost-of-living pressures needed “genuine consideration” from government. PhD stipends were woefully inadequate, particularly for students whose partners were also undertaking doctorates.

“They can’t buy a house, they can’t even rent properly and they can’t plan to have kids because they don’t have enough money. This is the research workforce that we rely on to put us above the odds, in terms of research performance, for a small population country. Those sorts of things are pretty much unsustainable,” she said.

Ms Jackson said fraying tempers over issues like gender identity and the Israel-Palestine conflict were not inconsistent with universities’ free speech obligations. “Genuine debate, grounded in evidence, conducted in a vibrant and assertive but civilised fashion – that’s what I see when I walk on to Australian university campuses. Any examples to the contrary are really isolated, as far as I can see.

“Entrenched views on the fringes…can be quite loud, but they’re quite small. There is a genuine culture of open debate on university campuses, and that’s what people should expect. If people think anything to the counter, they should turn up to one of the very large number of free public lectures, forums or discussions that are held on university campuses every day of the week, and make their own mind up.”


Register to continue

Why register?

  • Registration is free and only takes a moment
  • Once registered, you can read 3 articles a month
  • Sign up for our newsletter
Please Login or Register to read this article.

Related articles