Three lessons from a decade of higher education policy stalemate

Three lessons from a decade of higher education policy stalemate


I worked closely with a series of Labor and Coalition ministers on higher education policy, through a period of policy ambition. Their reforms now lie in abeyance. Policy progress is frustrated.

A series of savings taken a few months ago in the mid-year budget update have seen to that, with the system capped. Relations have been at a low point: the sector cussed and unrealistic, according to government; and government unreasonable and their savings unsustainable, according to the sector.

I want to offer an explanation of what has gone wrong to see if there might be clues about how to go forward from the current stalemate, especially for the universities.

This is even more pressing at a time when the privileged position of universities is itself under question. We need to ask whether the seemingly radical reform agendas of the last ten years went far enough, or did the sector fail to heed the lessons we all preach to others?

In a world where every other industry is being turned over and detached from its verities, why do universities get only to discuss the amount of funding they receive from taxpayers for a product basically taken as a given?

It would be a mistake for both the sector and government if the old model of annual insider negotiations over funding agreements, profiles and place quotas again became the main game of higher education policy.

It may be more comfortable than where relations have been but that is a co-dependent comfort; one that leaves universities flat footed with their real constituents and education ministers equally unprepared with treasurers and finance ministers.

There are several problems with this focus on funding as the main issue.

It locks government and university leaders in a closed conversation. Students, employers and communities become spectators at best.

The bureaucratic logic of any solution becomes an end in itself and this forces a kind of state-sanctioned uniformity on educational provision, at a time when we have a great deal to gain from higher education providers offering more choice rather than less.

Finally, locking down the conversation with the same old participants focussed on the same problems will likely get the same old answers. This is dangerous in terms of finding solutions to known problems. Bad enough. Worse, it has no hope of answering the genuinely disruptive possibilities.

Will adding the potency of blockchain technology to wider adoption of micro-credentialing and new online learning technologies be the final straw for the monopoly which universities enjoy in training professionals? Or might it be major corporations declaring they will just set up in competition and educate in-house?

University and government bureaucrats are not the first people who come to my mind to answer these challenges. Employers and young people seem more likely to have something interesting to say.

It is worse than universities not getting input from employers, families and students. They are not explaining their vision to their constituents.

Thankfully there is some innovation like the new Victoria University curriculum which is aimed at less well-prepared students and seems to be a genuine attempt to change the way teaching is done. But there are not enough of these examples and we don’t hear enough about them. Instead we hear torrid debate about higher education financing.

Christopher Pyne’s attempt in 2014 to open up funding to students in a wider range of courses and institutions was a straight up extension of the demand driven system introduced by Julia Gillard. None of the potential beneficiaries – large numbers of people getting a leg up through tech, health, business, education qualifications – were heard from in the debate. It was entirely dominated by the proposed deregulation of fees.

The universities did not promote the proposed extension of funding to other sectors, even though they supported his package. The opposition’s “$100,000 degree” campaign worked and drowned out the lot, including elements aimed at a more diverse sector.

I suspect the consumers had a suspicion that universities were, overall, not supporting fee deregulation to improve their children’s education.

University folk are mostly from well-heeled suburbs, schools and backgrounds. Perhaps too many of us — and I speak as someone educated at university when it was the privilege of a narrow group — are not yet fully comfortable with so many other-people’s-children dominating our alma mater? Heavens, ATARs of 50!

I have three suggestions for the sector.

The first is to get outside the beltway. A significant driver of both the Gillard and Pyne reforms was to use competition to force universities to think carefully about their distinct value proposition to students and to communities. Their reforms may be in abeyance. This driver is not.

In terms the community understands, which relate to middle Australia’s priorities – good jobs, decent services, growing businesses, community harmony and safety – universities need to articulate convincing reasons why it is important for something approaching a half of young people to get a higher education.

When I went to university, about 10 per cent of young people had that privilege. It is now nearing 40 per cent. This is seismic and important change, about which too many remain unconvinced. There is every reason to want great answers to be articulated, indeed with clarion strength.

And, for the answer to make sense, it means a rethink of the product, for the nearly fourfold clientele to be satisfied. They do not all want the same as we did! A fundamental reconsideration of the product is warranted, if the answer is to be convincing.

In her address to the 2018 Universities Australia conference Shadow Education Minister Tanya Plibersek promised that a re-elected Labor government would reintroduce the demand driven system. Importantly, she also underscored her expectation of significant modernisation.

“The rapid pace of change will have transformed the way we work and live, with mega trends like the internet of things, automation, and robotics all impacting us in ways we can’t imagine. If we are to be prepared for this future, we can’t simply rely on the structures or the thinking of the past.”

In the current government’s recent savings announcement, there was also buried a commitment to re-examine two sets of standards, the so-called Provider Category Standards and the Australian Qualifications Framework. This too is an invitation to the sector to re-engage in redefining what post-school education looks like in a rapidly changing world.

The second is to engage beyond the club. If convincing middle Australia requires articulating real benefits, it also requires embracing the range of educational choices that go beyond universities. This includes vocational education and training (VET) sector, the university sector and the non-university higher education providers.

Starting with the proposition that a modern, resilient and cohesive economy will require harnessing all of the potential in these sectors, the Business Council of Australia’s recent Future Proof paper proposes a unified funding structure.

The general response of the university sector has been to acknowledge the question the BCA paper takes on but to dismiss its solution. Their argument is that ignoring substantive differences in operations between the sectors in the search for a neat funding coherence is likely less to eliminate inequity than to force even more convergence in delivery.

Fair point.

However, the questions will not go away and a credible future post school education system requires considering all parts of post school. We need to chart a future where the full range of modern day students can make effective choices.

The challenge is to take on the questions in a way that is focussed on the much bigger group of students now in the system, seeking more variety of outcomes. Surely this means encouraging a more diverse set of providers and options?

Could the next step after celebrating mass participation kicked along by the 1980s “Dawkins reforms” be reconsidering the uniformity of the “Dawkins universities”, 30 years on?

Universities could ask what is to be learnt from the best of workplace-based learning in the VET system. Or how efficiently could university teaching be organised in a way that puts a complete focus on student outcomes and experience, as many of the non-university higher education providers will tell you is their mission and pleasure?

The VET system might benefit from examining the continued salience and appropriateness of a 1980s “competency” based framework. Their diploma and advanced diploma graduates will work in some of the most technical and fast-moving businesses in Australia. Surely that requires more than skills in current workplaces and technologies?

Universities could equally ask if their supposedly superior “higher education diplomas”, with curriculum and independent assessment, really give graduates all they deserve in the labour markets for which they claim to be designed?

Whoever is in government will eventually have to come to funding questions and at that moment the various sectors will have to engage in that question. In the meantime, there is a serious job of educational policy work to be done and a huge gain in connection with real outcomes for middle Australia to be won or lost.

The current minister’s reviews and the alternative minister’s warning about reliance on “the structures or the thinking of the past” both seem like urgent opportunities.

The third is to make life easier for education ministers. It is important to realise that the budget pressure on ministers is serious and will not go away. The university sector is not out of those woods. It is also dangerous to the sector when serious reform provokes a world of political pain for the minister and government of the day.

There are two imperatives here. One is budget responsibility. It is unlikely that the government, minister and department consider the current policy settings to be sustainable in the long term. To date, universities have spent considerable energy expressing their frustration at the current state in the media, leading to a public tit-for-tat which compromised the ability of either side to work through the current impasse.

The opposition has attacked the  savings in the mid-year budget update as it did the savings in the first  package from Minister Simon Birmingham in the 2017 budget. The sector’s first response to the 2014 Pyne package was to express shock that it included savings as well as fee deregulation. This was only a year after the sector and Senate rejected a Labor minister’s indexation pause in 2013.

However, there is also an opportunity here. It is not (ever) a bad time to consider fairer and more efficient ways to make savings, measures that are less prone to distort investment, institutional or individual decision making. Whoever occupies the Treasury benches after the next election (and indeed until then) will be grappling with budget as well as policy issues.

The second imperative is political saleability. Neither side is feeling particularly bold. Two grand reformist visions have not left the case for big picture reform looking very attractive politically. Contest politics has paid off. Those dynamics will not change overnight and yet the world moves on in ways that carry real dangers for the sector. As we move toward the next election, universities need to develop policy proposals which the major parties will consider to be politically saleable (and financially responsible).

This is not an easy challenge, but it will be made easier by the sector reaching out to engage middle Australia in a meaningful way. If the sector succeeds in this task, its work selling policy reform to government is already halfway there.

In this paper I have suggested that the most important next steps involve engagement with the world of students, their families and employers. It involves rethinking the shape of post-school education, together with the other sectors.

It requires engaging with employers who are otherwise at risk of bypassing education providers that do not or will not keep pace with their aspirations. It means recognising large swathes of the young population might go with those disrupted options, unless the wider education sector can do better.

If the sector connects to the changing aspirations of its consumer base, its added gain will be real traction to help government sell both real and financially sustainable reform. The sector has the potential to be co-author of its future, not victim to events.

This op-ed was originally published in The Australian on Wednesday,  11 April 2018.

Download the full paper ‘Three lessons from a decade of higher education policy stalemate.’