Universities are being urged to demonstrate digital leadership – and if ever there was a good time to do so it is right now.

As KPMG’s Stephen Parker wrote this week, current education systems are preparing students for forms of work that are disappearing.

“We focus on solving existing, rather than emerging, problems. Without urgent action, Australia risks being left behind as competitor nations lift their productivity and prepare their citizens better for the future world of work.”

This view appears to be supported by the IMD World Competitiveness Centre’s new report, which places Australia at a disappointing 15 out of 63 nations in a ranking of countries’ digital competitiveness.

It seeks to measure nations’ ability “to adopt and explore digital technologies leading to transformation in government practices, business models and society in general”.

Countries are rated on three core areas – knowledge, technology and future readiness.

Topping the ranking is Singapore, followed by Sweden, the USA, Finland and Denmark.

Commenting on the ranking, CEDA Research and Policy Committee Chairman Professor Rod Maddock said the areas of most concern were training and education, and business agility.

“These two go hand in hand because if people have the right skills and training then business can use these talents to adapt and embrace new opportunities as technological change disrupts business,” he said.

“Other countries have moved much more quickly to ensure digital competency of their workforce but Australia still has some way to go in this space.

“The Federal Government has significantly ramped up focus on this area, for example with the National Innovation and Science Agenda, which is great to see, but this ranking shows more still needs to be done.

“There needs to be increasing focus at all levels of education on digital skills, and education and skill development can’t stop once someone enters the workforce.”

Professor Ron Johnston, Executive Director of the Australian Centre for Innovation and a Professor in the Faculty of Engineering & IT at the University of Sydney, wrote in The Conversation that being 15th in digital competitiveness was “worrisome”.

“On most measures included in the score, Australia is steadily falling behind and changing this trajectory will take time and commitment.”

Australia rated poorly on digital and technological skills, he said.

“There’s hardly been silence on this issue: the Australian Computer Society, among many others, has long emphasised the growing labour market for IT skills, and the need to enhance training.”

Australia also had a very low level of employee training, he said.

“The National Centre for Vocational Education and Research (NCVER) has argued that the growth of casual employment, together with outsourcing, has had a significant impact on vocational education and training (VET) in the workplace.”

Professor Arturo Bris, director of the IMD World Competitiveness Centre, said there was no doubt supportive and inclusive government institutions help technological innovation, adding that “in digitally competitive countries, the government must facilitate the adoption of new technologies”.

In what ways can universities show leadership now to help to make Australia more digitally competitive?