The mining industry could graduate to a whole new level
Reflecting on the responses to my original piece in The Punch Instead of sandstone unis, what about iron ore ones? I was struck by the extent to which the respondents viewed university education stereotypically; on the one hand as an elitist institution, out of touch with society’s needs; on the other, as a factory for young people who should be trained to do useful stuff, like engineering.
The thought that an Arts education had anything to offer was broadly dismissed. People seemed more interested in comparing the philanthropic culture of individuals in the United States business sector to Australian philanthropy, but the notion that a company could also be a social actor was not accepted.
Support university incomes and you guarantee university flexibility to respond to the expectations of their community.
This independence has made some US universities great. In an article in The Australian on the release of the Higher Education policy from the Business Council of Australia in March 2011, one of the key points was the growing need for graduates with attributes in so-called soft or generic skills like leadership, teamwork and communication, not just supplying engineers and scientists.
Taskforce member Mr Paul Dougas (CEO of engineering and environmental consulting firm Sinclair Knight Merz) said:
“It is more about a broadening of the curricula to produce people who can work on a range of issues, solve problems and work in teams…
That is, a diverse education focused on producing graduates across all disciplines who know how to contribute in a world overwhelmed by information; where managing complex problems and making good decisions are vital skills.
For example, there will be a need to ensure that social and economic and technical/environmental solutions are able to adapt to the challenges that emerge from the inevitability of climate change and population growth. Universities are a bulwark that communities implicitly rely upon, from where they draw down on the values of learning as the basis for coping with and driving change.
The increasingly volatile nature of employment and investment patterns in Australia requires a countervailing source of social continuity, a place to keep and nurture underpinning values and human assets, which can strengthened and drawn upon if required.
Educational institutions are such a place, providing a buffer against the effects of unfortunate economic management, reactionary policy making, or shocks to international systems of credit supply or food security.
The key benefit for the universities from the injection of funds by the mining companies is release from the yoke of government compliance culture, towards a more creative educational model. I think it is a propitious time to change the ‘rules of the game’. Propitious, because Government and governance mechanisms are in active contest, and uncertainty in economic futures and new carbon management has created a volatile state of flux, such that the endowment of Adelaide’s universities by Rio Tinto and BHP Billiton would be a game-changer for Governments and perhaps the public’s perceptions of their future in a broader sense.
For example, the three SA universities have a combined academic salary bill of $465 million per annum. The income from $10 billion at 5 per cent return on investment is $500 million per annum The universities have existing financial structures that could accommodate the endowments. Auditing is already quite rigorous.
I suggest that endowments made from the extra-ordinary profits in the current iron ore and coal trade, in transactions made directly with the three universities, would result in a massive, positive public relations impact. It would immediately re-frame debate about the Mineral Resources Rent Tax, and re-cast mining companies as constructive corporate citizens able to be trusted and expose government rent-seeking.
Indeed, why shouldn’t mining companies deal directly with universities? Are we so prejudiced by our perceptions of miners as ruthless self-serving entities that we dismiss their capacity to accept the logic of their roles as social actors who are part of the Australian social fabric?
Why is it assumed that universities are so craven or such poor negotiators that they would surrender their key asset - independence, impartiality, trust – for money? Universities know what to teach and how to educate. The Government and miners have already agreed that a portion of the fantastic mining wealth should be returned to the Australian society.
The only difference is that some of the largest social actors in our Australian community might decide to work together directly for mutual and broader social benefit into the foreseeable future.
The endowments would be a straightforward, de-politicised transaction with maximum effect since there would be no middlemen or administrators to take their 20 per cent.
Is it possible that the mining companies’ reputations would be altered in positive if perhaps subtle ways in the eyes of their key south and east Asian customers whose cultures value education more highly than we do in Australia? The endowment income could be used, for example, in subsidising the costs for overseas students to study in Australia, a strategic political investment for Australia and in the health of Australia’s education services sector, especially given the likelihood of a continuing strong Australian Dollar.
But it would not require a Government program; it wouldn’t require Government to intervene at all. Back to the Future: the Colombo Plan circa 2012!
As an aside, in proposing this plan and if carried forward, there are a myriad of possible influences on the psyche of those engaged in economic management, for which, such transactions would constitute a paradigmatic shift in the way we value the role of business. Perhaps most importantly and particularly it would signal to the financial sector that a return to common sense relationships between livelihoods and a life well lived was happening.
The Global Financial Crisis and climate change have demonstrated that ‘growth forever’ is now a failed, flawed, philosophy.
The mining companies have it within their power to initiate a ‘new game’, to ‘change the rules’ that would allow the return to rich and intensive teaching and learning. That is, a way of educating all manner of people that has stood the test of time and which transforms social and human capital into productive, critical-thinking individuals in whatever futures await.
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