Universities Australia is the voice of Australian universities that aims to affirm Australia’s status as a world-leader and valued international partner in the higher ed sector. It aims to influence the national policy framework that guides and constrains higher education –interesting stuff considering old mate Birmo’s* recent non-legislative changes which will see the sector lose out on around $2 billion of funding.

This year, the theme of Universities Australia’s annual Higher Education Conference was ‘Future Fundamentals,’ exploring the “fundamental role of universities in teaching, learning and research as they reinvent themselves in a new political, economic and technological environment.’ The question that crossed the minds of the (few) students lucky to be present – are universities trying to reinvent the wheel? Has the idea of access to education changed that much?

Throughout the conference attendees tackled serious issues the sector would need to address in order to move forward. Workshops, for example, discussed barriers to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander student mobility and accessibility of higher education, and what Australia can learn from the precedent set by Canada and New Zealand. The plenary session on ‘Dispelling Dystopia’ afforded speakers, particularly Professor Deb Verhoeven from UTS, the opportunity to hit home on the extent of gender bias and sexism in research and their detrimental effects on the future of technology in the sector.

All fantastic concepts and ideas, and all lacking a student voice.

On a whole, it’s fair to say that there was one big element of the higher education sector missing in almost every aspect of this conference – students. Not to discredit the panels and workshops that did explore this – such as Prof. Sally Varnham’s ‘Students As Partners,’ which focussed on developing partnerships (like the one the Guild and UWA have) that enshrine students into the governance and decision-making processes of the university. Similarly, the conference’s Student Panel allowed representatives from the National Union of Students, National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Postgraduate Association, Council of International Students Australia and Council Australia Postgraduate Associations to speak about their vision for the future of Australian higher education, bringing student ideas and concerns into focus. Universities Australia still seems to be out of touch if these are the only instances of the student voice in over 20 odd workshops, and 5 plenary sessions over the two days.

In summary, whilst the conference was undoubtedly spilling over with high flying academics, professionals and sector leaders, it largely failed to hear the contributions of the sector’s biggest stakeholder – students throughout the country.

*Federal Education and Training Minister Simon Birmingham

Megan Lee | @megxaggeration
UWA Student Guild President