Defence Force ‘should bankroll degree places’

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Australia’s representative university body wants the Department of Defence to consider becoming a de facto funder of higher education places, to help solve skill shortages afflicting the armed forces.

In a submission to the Defence Strategic Review, Universities Australia (UA) says the legislation governing the allocation of higher education places – which bans institutions from enrolling full-fee domestic undergraduates, under a change implemented by the previous Labor government in 2009 – hinders its members’ capacity to train up future defence workers.

But the defence department could dodge this roadblock by funding the places itself, UA argues. “If Defence was interested in sponsoring a number of places in areas of particular defence need, it may be possible to do so by providing financial support to the Department of Education,” the submission says.

“Working in partnership with both the higher education sector and the government more broadly, [Defence could] identify which universities would be willing to offer these additional places.”

UA also proposes a new form of “standby reservist” where graduates whose tuition fees have been paid by the department could be obliged to fill short-term workforce needs “for an agreed period of service”.

“[This could] create an additional tier of knowledge worker reserve forces built around skills shortages in areas like STEM, cultural and strategic studies, languages, health disciplines and policy, to name a few…[giving] Defence a reserve force with the necessary skills, ready to be deployed rapidly if geopolitical conditions change.”

The review, announced in August, is advising on how the department should prioritise its investments to meet security challenges over the next decade and beyond. It is being led by former defence force chief Angus Houston and former Labor defence minister Stephen Smith, now professor of public international law at the University of Western Australia.

UA says its members have a role to play in helping Defence address the “intensifying sense of strategic urgency” driven by the “rapidly evolving threats in the Indo-Pacific and, more specifically, by foreign powers intent on disrupting the post-WWII rules-based international order”.

The submission says skill shortages, along with economic uncertainty and geopolitical tensions, are contributing to the sense of crisis. Universities have scope to help “in almost every aspect” of the department’s work, from research and innovation, conflict management and disaster preparedness to “recovery and reconciliation efforts” and “delivery of humanitarian aid”.

The submission explores other ways that “universities and Defence could work together to better meet national priorities” and offers “practical suggestions about changes to current Defence operations that would increase universities’ capacity to meet the nation’s defence needs”.

They include removing restrictions on the Defence University Sponsorship scheme, which funds degree places for current and prospective defence workers. The department should relinquish its expectation that incoming students apply the year before they finish school, and that current defence personnel must have already completed at least a semester of degree-level studies before qualifying for the programme.

The defence department should also consider “opening up currently restricted internships and roles to the 100,000-plus international students from allied countries studying in Australia”, the submission says.

john.ross@timeshighereducation.com



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