How are our universities preparing for AUKUS?

How are our universities preparing for AUKUS?

This week marks one year since the Morrison Government breathlessly announced a new trilateral security agreement with the United States and United Kingdom called AUKUS.

And now twelve months later from the fanfare and the secrecy of the announcement, questions remain over the deal and how Australia will fill the skills gaps needed to facilitate the transfer of science and technology under the arrangement.

The headline grabbing part of AUKUS was that Australia will obtain nuclear-powered submarines to replace its aging Collins Class subs.

With many decisions still to be made about where the nuclear submarines will be built and maintained, there is a lot that remains unknown about the AUKUS agreement. But piece by piece the jigsaw is filling in. For example last month the Albanese Government announced navy personnel would begin training on submarines in the United Kingdom.

“When you talk about AUKUS everyone immediately thinks about submarines, but really the opportunities are much broader than that.”

Professor Gia Parish

There has been speculation, generated by former Defence Minister Peter Dutton, that Australia might be able to buy some off-the-shelf submarines from either the US or the UK, but a statement from Rear Admiral Scott Pappano, the senior officer in charge of the US Navy’s nuclear submarine program, says that won’t happen.

“If we were going to add additional [Australian] submarine construction to our base that would be detrimental right now. I think that exists for both US and the UK,” Pappano said.

Crikey News Investigations reporter David Hardaker said: “The estimated cost of the AUKUS program so far is $100 billion, with the first submarine to be delivered in around 2040. The rear admiral’s off-the-cuff comments would appear to place all that in question. At the very least they put paid to the idea that Australia might buy its first few boats off the shelf to close the defence capability gap.”

But put the subs aside as we’re led to believe there is much more to the deal.

AUKUS promises deeper information and technology sharing across a range of sectors including defence-related science, technology, industrial bases, and supply chains. Australian universities will no-doubt play a major role in facilitating both the research and development side of this technology sharing, but also in training the future workers needed to seize these opportunities.

John Blaxland Professor of International Security and Intelligence Studies at ANU said all institutions around Australia were caught off-guard by the AUKUS announcement.

“It was something that was very closely held and caught us all by surprise. And a lot of universities are now basically playing catch up trying to figure out what this means and how to respond,” he said.

Blaxland said there was momentum which was building around the AUKUS agreement and how Australia could best capitalise on the opportunities.

“How can we make the most of the AUKUS agreement and provide opportunities for development of indigenous capabilities while capitalising on British and American technologies to build up better abilities in Australia?” he said.

“There’s a huge enthusiasm for that in industry, in the tertiary education sector and in government. I think momentum is building quite rapidly,” he added.

What does that catch-up look lie? Are the universities yet in a position to meet the needs of this transformation in defence? Is it something they will even talk about?

Cosmos asked all “Group of 8” universities — Australia’s leading research institutions — how they planned to take advantage of the opportunities surrounding AUKUS for their students and researchers.

The University of Western Australia and Australian National University both took the time to give detailed interviews to Cosmos on how AUKUS would, and already is, impacting their universities and the way they teach and research.

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President Joe Biden pictured with Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison, following the AUKUS agreement signed in September 2021 / Credit: White House

No matter where the ship building happens, the maintenance will be a massive effort and will likely be based in either South Australia or Western Australia.

University of Western Australia’s Director of Defence and Security Institute, Professor Gia Parish, said the university was already advanced in thinking around how to maximise opportunities from the AUKUS agreement.

“When you talk about AUKUS everyone immediately thinks about submarines, but really the opportunities are much broader than that for us,” she said.

In August the university hosted a round-table discussion with the Department of Defence and other institutions to discuss information and technology sharing related to AUKUS, discussions which ”are ongoing.”

“Students don’t consider defence and security as a career path enough, it’s something we need to work on. Whether it’s through engineering, whether through AI or strategic policy, we need to develop that sovereign capability and it’s a challenge for all universities,” she said.

She said collaboration would be key to the agreement’s success.

“We have to, as a defence industry, as a university, as academics, government, industry all put our heads together on this issue and work out the best path moving forward and how we will cater to these needs,” she added.

Nuclear physics

Since 1974 the ANU has been home to the only Heavy Ion Accelerator Facility based at a university in Australia and research and faculty staff at the university say it has put them at the forefront of training and research around nuclear physics for decades. 

Nuclear physics professor Greg Lane says he doesn’t believe it is an exaggeration to say that the majority of the scientists seconded to work on the AUKUS agreement have come through the ANU’s nuclear physics programs at either an undergraduate or post-graduate level.

“Other universities don’t tend to focus on the core nuclear science, they focus on the applications of the nuclear science, that is the key difference,” he said.

Professor Mahananda Dasgupta Director of the ANU Heavy Ion Accelerator Facility said the university had been engaging on a deep level with the Department of Defence both before and since the AUKUS announcement to understand the growing needs of the sector and consider how best to train students to fill skill shortages.

“Australia already has a massive skills shortage in the number of people trained in nuclear physics for the civilian sector, for things like safe disposal of medical and other nuclear waste, if we are going to enhance our capabilities in the area of national security we are going to need many, many more people,” she said.

She added that the Department of Defence had already directly funded two cohorts of students to attend the universities nuclear physics master’s program and that they would expect more “indirect” funding like this into the future. She said eventually the government would need to make further investments in university collaboration including through more direct funding mechanism to meet the growing needs.

Professor mahananda dasgupta of anu's heavy ion accelerator facility
Professor Mahananda Dasgupta of ANU’s Heavy Ion Accelerator Facility / Credit: ANU

The University of Sydney said it expected universities would have a “key role” to play in ensuring that the AUKUS agreement was a success.

“These are still early days, but we look forward to partnering with government and industry towards these aims,” a university spokeswoman said.

“Partnerships between universities, government and industry are vital to ensure that Australia has the facilities, knowledge, skills and experience needed to tackle our future challenges, including those in defence.

“Our deep competencies and coordinated expertise in quantum technologies, supply chain resilience, advanced manufacturing and materials engineering, cybersecurity, human-centric AI, medicine and many other fields will position us to deliver the fundamental and applied research that AUKUS will inevitably demand. We also recognise our role in the education of workforce-ready graduates.”

The University of Melbourne said its graduates and research staff aligned with fields that were priority areas of the AUKUS partnership.

 “These include maritime systems engineering, nuclear physics, as well as Indo-Pacific relations, defence and legal policy,” the university said.

“The United States and the United Kingdom are significant research collaborators of the University – long standing relationships where expertise and knowledge are shared between our researchers and AUKUS partner nation’s research institutes, government agencies and companies.”

The University of Adelaide, University of New South Wales, Monash University and University of Queensland declined to comment, although no doubt there is a great deal of other organisational change going on in the background to tool-up for AUKUS.

“If we are going to enhance our capabilities in the area of national security we are going to need many, many more people.”

Professor Mahananda Dasgupta

For example UNSW’s Master of Engineering Science (Nuclear Engineering) course has been the recipient of up to a dozen Defence employees and other public servants who have received grants to study the course, according the ABC, and meetings have been held at senior levels at Flinders University in Adelaide.

And no doubt there will be keen anticipation of the first Albanese Government budget, particularly that of the Science and Industry portfolio, to find a sense of priorities and direction which will fund new technology, placements and research.

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