When Western Sydney University started 30 years ago, service industries were about to overtake manufacturing as the leading generator of income in Australia.
Decades of government policy had turned Western Sydney into the nation’s manufacturing industry centre.
But with end of tariff protections for the manufacturing industry, Western Sydney could have gone the way of similar communities in the rust belts of the British midlands where rampant unemployment still lingers.
It did not happen.
The Director of the Centre for Western Sydney, Professor Phillip O’Neill, says investment in education drove the transformation of the local labour force out of manufacturing.
“Western Sydney is a leading world example of using education as a pathway to re-engineer a labour force,” he says.
“In the early 1970s, when Western Sydney was a manufacturing powerhouse, just over 2,000 people had degrees in Parramatta, Blacktown and Fairfield local government areas.
“By 2016 there were 380,000 degree holders in the region, which represents nearly 30 per cent of the degree holders in the entire Sydney metropolitan area.
“So, Western Sydney on its own is a nationally significant pool of professional services labour.
“The task now is to re-engineer the economy because the absorption of those tertiary education workers from Western Sydney has been via Sydney as a global city to the east.”
Perhaps the biggest challenge facing Western Sydney University is the development of the second airport and its adjoining aerotropolis where some 200,000 knowledge jobs are predicted.
Professor O’Neill says the development is the government’s most significant acknowledgment of the employment problem facing Western Sydney.
“It’s an enormous task government has set itself,” he says.
“There’s huge generosity from Western Sydney’s major institutions in collaborating on that task, including the University as a leader in acknowledging its role as an educational provider in those precincts.”
Professor O’Neill says the strong evolution of research activity has added to Western’s readiness for the future.
He says that in the early years, researchers had struggled, but this century the University deliberately brought in international scholars to fill institute and research centres.
Professor O’Neill says the University’s rise in global research rankings is proof of the efficacy of the recruitment program.
WORDS BY DAMIEN MURPHY