7 November 2014
Firstly, an acknowledgment to the traditional owners of the country we’re meeting on today and their elders past and present. As always, it’s a real pleasure, and honour, to have Lyndon Davis deliver the Welcome to Country.
Welcome to the 2014 Sunshine Coast Futures Conference, on behalf of the University and our co-sponsors and colleagues at the Sunshine Coast Council.
This is the fifth in this series of conferences. As our MC Tracey has already alluded, this conference is somewhat different to our previous events which were centred around specific pieces of new research.
The change this year involves a wider, discussion approach. It notes that our region is now rapidly maturing and, consequently, our deliberations on its future should take a wider view. Like all regions, the Sunshine Coast has its issues and problems but those notwithstanding, few would question that it has potential, into the future, practically without equal anywhere else in Australia.
But potential is one thing, making it happen is another. Today is very much about making things happen. How do we, as 200 leaders and professionals drawn from all parts of our region, have a positive influence on the future and really do something about it?
As we start, I want to make a couple of what I think are critical points – albeit focussed on my space in the world of education.
The first is that, while we understand that a robust, growing and sustainable economy is vital to the region’s future, we must make sure that we reasonably take the whole community with us.
In later sessions today, our expert panels will no doubt be looking at the impact of the aging population, healthcare, education and employment. In those areas particularly, we must ensure that we are not leaving behind or marginalising members of our community. Compared with other countries, Australia has a strong history of tolerance and social cohesion but we cannot take that for granted. Unless there is reasonable equity in income distribution and resource allocation, social dislocation may not be far away.
Related to this, you would all be aware that worldwide, there are well publicised indices of ‘best cities and regions’. Typically they will have a dozen or so criteria – employment, safety, education, cultural activities, cost of living, tolerance, equity etc. A point made by many commentators of such surveys is that an attractive place to live and to invest is one that addresses all of the criteria. Further, an outstanding result in one criterion will in no way compensate for failure in another criterion.
It is obvious enough – who would be attracted long-term to a place where wages were extremely high but where it was dangerous to go out at night? or a place where the natural environment is pristine but there are no educational or work opportunities?
This message resonates very strongly at the university and our experience typifies the challenges of the Coast and its businesses as a whole – so let’s consider USC’s international students. This year they number over a 1,000 and comprise about 12% of total student load. We want the proportion to be at least 15%. And as we continue to grow the size of the university as a whole, international students will make very significant contributions to the regional community and its economy.
The university sector runs an “international student barometer survey” every year. This tells us that USC, or rather the Sunshine Coast, is considered to be the safest student destination in the country – what a selling point. They love the educational experience at USC and the quality of the teaching. However, students also recognise that part-time work is not easy to find on the coast – that’s a negative. They love the environment here and USC’s/the Region’s commitment to sustainability – but they reckon there’s a lack of cultural activities – the Coast is also an expensive place for students to live. If we could change some of these negatives we might just be overrun by international students.
I’d suggest that many of the sectors and businesses here today face exactly the same challenges. Surely we can change some of these things.
The point here is that places are considered to be of quality, or not, based on the entirety of the place – not simply components.
The second point I want to make also relates to the education and training sector on the Coast. Around the world and particularly in developed and high cost countries like Australia, our future lies in ‘value-adding’ – providing knowledge, skills and expertise to goods and services into domestic and global markets. From any number of definitive studies, those skills are linked directly with education – broadly defined: education that commences in the home and in civic responsibilities, is developed in our schools, and comes to maturity in vocational and technical training and in university qualifications. Rarely has there ever been a case stronger than the link between appropriate and relevant education, and the prosperity and comprehensive wellbeing of individuals, households, firms and community. We are, in our region, well-served by an excellent education system drawn from public and private resources. However the demand for education and challenges in its provision lie before us as debates on funding and deregulation and quality continue in all sectors from schools to universities.
As with the rest of the Sunshine Coast region, we are proud that USC has grown so fast and is reaching a level of maturity that could hardly have been imagined when it was bravely established 18 years ago. We now can call USC truly comprehensive in its offerings: it has an excellent research agenda, a world class Innovation Centre and 10,000 students - all of which make significant contributions to the regional economy.
The point I want to make however, is that the whole of the education and training sector, including the university must grow significantly if it is to fully provide all the necessary support for the region into the future.
By way of example, the Illawarra District just south of Sydney is about the same size of our region (300,000 people). Its university, the University of Wollongong, is something of a model for us and indeed, its immediate past Vice Chancellor, Professor Gerard Sutton, is a member of USC’s governing Council. That university, however, is over three times as big as USC (30,000+ students). This is not a criticism of us but reflects their much longer development and the vision Wollongong’s leaders have had for their university. So in a future, where knowledge and education are the key determinants of prosperity, the further growth of USC is vital – as is continued growth in the TAFE / VET sector and in schools. I would hope that this would be seen as a regional issue not just as a matter for those engaged in education and training.
The alignment of our educational offering, the links with the new Sunshine Coast University Hospital and our rapidly growing research presence in such areas as mental health, biological sciences, and sustainability attest to USC’s commitment to the region. Hopefully these matters will be included in your later deliberations today.
I wish you an informative, constructive and enjoyable day and assure you that the outcomes, authored by you all, will be presented to the wider community and decision makers within the community and beyond.