Tomorrow's workforce, QUT

March 2015

Human Capital

Brisbane is a multi-cultural hub of creativity and invention that provides students with forward-thinking educational providers and world-class research facilities, all in a sub-tropical climate ideal for an outdoor lifestyle.

Brisbane offers world-class education along with a high-quality, accessible lifestyle, especially if you compare living expenses and tuition costs with other developed countries. If Brisbane is to become a truly global city it must create a labour force with the right knowledge, talent, skills and judgement for a modern-day workforce. 

In this edition of the Brisbane Economic Series, we sat down with the Vice-Chancellor of Queensland University of Technology, Peter Coaldrake AO, to take a look at Brisbane’s human capital. 

How do you see the role of universities in creating Brisbane’s labour force?

The world of work is undergoing fundamental change, which has been accelerated as Australia becomes more exposed to the effects of globalisation, technological change and innovation. Adapting to change and making the most of our abilities requires increasing levels of education, including higher education which keeps abreast of the latest developments in human knowledge. Universities can incubate our best minds and provide a fertile environment for people from all walks of life to develop their abilities. Universities understand they need to do more than expose students to academic disciplines and produce cutting-edge science. They also need to link with the world of practice, help solve problems, and enable students to develop more rounded skills, including the ability to sustain curiosity and continue to learn so that they can make the best of what the future holds. To do this, universities need to go beyond providing courses which are simply based on what they have offered in the past or what academics wish to provide based on their own specialities; in the future, they must do a better job of understanding underlying trends in the economy and collaborating more effectively with external partners to ensure they are providing what students and employers need, in both hard and soft skills.

How important is Brisbane’s workforce to grow the economy?

The idea of human capital as a driver of the wealth of nations and regions has been well understood and developed for many years. Forward-thinking governments in many places around the world have sought to create environments where a highly educated population links with the production of new knowledge and creativity. Brisbane has benefited from many years of positive development along these lines, and has a thriving world-class educational and research environment which is widely accessible.

People talk about the “brain drain”, how can Brisbane improve and what areas are we doing well at?

“Brain drain” is generally not a useful concept in the way universities view the flow of human knowledge and skills. We actively encourage people to broaden their horizons and to pursue opportunities around the globe. What we need to ensure is that such opportunities – for intellectual and economic development – are available in Brisbane in the future and that they are of a world standard. We have seen very good work done that puts Brisbane very squarely on the world map; the challenge for the future is to sustain and build upon what we have.

What are universities looking to do with education expenditure and QUT in particular? 

QUT’s main point of differentiation and success relates to our consistent commitment to linking academic strength with real world application. The “real world” claim is more than branding, it is made material in many ways throughout the university, in education and research and in the way we value and develop relationships with external partners. Given limited resources and a globally competitive environment, QUT has carefully and strategically pursued the development of excellence in particular fields where we can make a major impact. 

Where do you see Brisbane’s labour force as a percentage of populations, where could there be improvements and what areas are we good at?

The demands of the future knowledge economy suggest that higher education should be available for all those capable of pursuing it, regardless of their social or economic background, and to that extent a national target of some 40 per cent of young people holding degrees is in line with leading international benchmarks and aspirations, including emerging powers such as China. The real challenge is not about meeting some overall national targets, but ensuring that people from disadvantaged backgrounds have the opportunity to develop their skills to enable them to fully participate in the economy of the future.

At present, the match between demand and supply of skilled labour in Brisbane seems about right, in that there are no sustained areas of evident skill shortage. However, we are in a period of economic transition and relative weakness so we cannot assume current settings should stay as they are. Indications are that in many areas demand for provision of skilled services will increase significantly over the next decade. Brisbane at present has exciting potential to develop a wide range of new industries and services, ranging from creative industries through to business services, advanced manufacturing and biomedical innovation. Enabling such new industries to flourish in Brisbane will require a highly educated workforce and continued building of the outstanding education and research infrastructure that has been developed in this city.  

If you would like to read more from Professor Coaldrake, he has authored and edited a number of books and monographs, including as co-author (with Dr Lawrence Stedman) of Raising the Stakes:  Gambling with the Future of Universities,  Academic Work in the Twenty-First Century and On the Brink:  Australia’s Universities Confronting Their Future. He is also the author of Working the System:  Government in Queensland.

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