A natural fit: Canberra’s place as a learning capital

blackfriars lecture

Adapted from Chief Minister Katy Gallagher’s 2013 Blackfriars Lecture at the Australian Catholic University November 2013

As one of Australia’s fastest growing universities, in the city of Australia’s fastest growing university sector, the Australian Catholic University’s Signadou campus is a fitting place to talk about the success of higher education in the ACT. It’s also an opportunity to lay out some of the ways both the government and university sectors can – together – build on this momentum. Although this will be my focus, it would be simplistic to discuss higher education in isolation from broader economic, urban and social policy issues. For the ACT Government, they exist in the same overarching policy framework and they are driven by the same core principles of growth and opportunity.

A leading higher education sector belongs in Canberra – I firmly believe it’s a ‘natural fit’. Higher education draws on many areas we excel in: knowledge-intensive industries; science and research; ICT; politics and government; international diplomacy; history and culture; and excellence in school education.

It also draws on a deeply-held belief in the value of education to our economy and city – to the colour and shade of our community. In 2011, more than one in four Canberrans were enrolled in study at some level. Tertiary enrolments are approaching 40,000 – that figure alone represents more than 10 per cent of the city. Tertiary education is one of our major non-government employers, our second biggest exporter and a source of more than $2 billion annually for our economy. Canberra’s international student numbers have grown consistently higher than in any other Australian city – at an average of 10 per cent each year since 2007. The fact is that we are, in many ways, a university town.

It’s not adequately acknowledged in Australia, but the truth is Canberra is home to the same cosmopolitan blend of universities, world class cultural institutions and student life that has put comparable international cities on the map. We are not a party city or a ‘city that never sleeps’ and we don’t need to be. As a contrast to far bigger and more congested cities, I see the relative serenity of Canberra as one of our true advantages.

What we are is a bold, progressive, high-achieving city with the confidence to think big and take on dangerous ideas. You see this in our academic and research communities, in thriving pockets of student culture and in our ambitious young arts community. There are few better cities in which to push the limits of one’s intellect. Once we, as government, university and business leaders, reach absolute consensus on this point – once we fully believe in our self as a learning capital – we have the foundation on which to have others believe it. We also have the ability to create the brand and momentum which are so important in national and international student markets.

As I have said, we need to be confident about who we are and let that confidence flow through to our advocacy and branding. One of the great achievements of the Centenary of Canberra, in my mind, has been the unearthing of community and city pride. This is something we must carry forward as a legacy – the means to a permanent departure from Canberra bashing and self-deprecation about our city. A city brand is far more than a logo. It’s a collective idea – and a collective advocacy – about who we are and what we have to offer. The government has put the wheels in motion to build momentum behind the Canberra brand. But it’s only through a critical mass that it will take hold, and we will be counting on the voices of the university, business and community sectors to champion it with us.

The government’s work with the higher education sector is one part of a broad strategy of economic diversification and growth. There is no doubt our economy is in period of some uncertainty. Announcements made in the last week show that the federal public service is now under substantial pressure and that pressure is being felt in other parts of the economy. Revenue predictions mean that as we begin to frame next year’s ACT Budget, our government, too, will face some increasingly hard choices.

This is a time for government, business and the education sector to hold our collective nerve. After more than a decade of solid growth and careful economic management, we have the fundamentals to maintain confidence and stability in our economy. I believe we have also passed a threshold as a city which gives us greater resilience than in previous decades. For example, the expansion to Canberra airport – the gateway to the entire capital region – will be complemented by the new Majura Parkway as two major enablers of passenger and freight movement.

Our systematic embrace of the regional economy and a cooperative approach to service provision is also benefitting different sectors – in tourism, agriculture, planning and health, for example. Our younger, often more dynamic industry sectors have shown themselves able to quickly adapt to new markets as tastes change and new opportunities present. This innovation and outward orientation needs to continue and the government is working with an emphasis on creating the business environment to foster it.

Strengthening and diversifying the economy is one of four key priorities we have set for the coming 12 months. Heading into 2014 we will also continue extensive policy and investment commitments in areas of: opportunity and liveability across the city; a healthier and smarter community; and transformative urban renewal.

These elements reflect an ambitious vision for Canberra’s future and each one is the result of extensive policy development and negotiation around the Cabinet table. Through this vision, we want to lead Canberra forward as a progressive place of even greater opportunity, fairness, good health and civic pride.

We’re sometimes criticised by our opponents for being too ambitious – even for acting beyond what they feel the ACT’s jurisdiction should be. In those moments, I can’t help but feel they’re selling short the aspirations of Canberra. I also think they lose sight of what has been achieved when there is a collaborative approach which puts the city first.

The ACT’s program of tax reform and red tape reduction is a case in point. By working with business and the community, we are delivering a reform agenda in areas where other states and territories have been unable to do so. In public health, we have recently been given national recognition as the leading Australian jurisdiction in efforts to tackle rising obesity rates because we have mobilised all arms of government to contribute. Having been the first jurisdiction to sign-up to DisabilityCare Australia, the ACT will also be the first to transition completely to the new scheme – another core priority of 2013-14. Finally, within a few years, the first big step towards Canberra’s future public transport system will be taken when light rail connects Gungahlin and the city centre. Again, this project is a commitment made with the overwhelming support of ACT residents and businesses.

I give these as a few examples, among many, to make a connection with the fine traditions of Signadou. I believe one of the defining ethics of the campus, through its history and its present, is one of my own guiding principles – that providing equality and opportunity, particularly through the younger stages of life, is a fundamental responsibility of both governments and educational institutions. These opportunities give us the capacity to think big and the ability to bring a vision to life.

As a learning capital, I hope this ethic is embraced by Canberrans well beyond the spheres of government and higher education. I’m driven by the prospect of making this city fairer and more prosperous, and my ambition is not weakened by the immediate challenges we face. But as history has shown every political leader, you cannot achieve a big vision without the collective might of your community pulling in the same direction. The challenge then, for our universities, businesses and government, is to back Canberra through adversity and create the city we believe in.