The Nick Xenophon Team’s proposal for a root-and-branch review of the whole tertiary education system looks at first glance like a desperate option, but with a closer look, it begins to crystalize into the desperate option that we need.
Governments have often flipped the glass case and smashed the “independent review” button when the higher education sector is concerned, with the string of reviews back to the Dawkins reforms looking like a veritable who’s-who of the university sector. These reviews have largely been limited in scope, going only as far as suggesting extensions to the demand-driven system or expanding access to certain programs. This means the scope for reviewers to reset policy levers at a grander scale has been limited. Given the central role of the post-secondary school system in matters from training tradespeople and professionals to expanding human knowledge, all essential to a highly developed economy like Australia, this narrow field for policymaking presents real risks for Australia’s future.
The tertiary education sector has been arbitrarily split into higher education (HE) and vocational education and training (VET) for decades, and aside from a baseline of academic interest there has been little recent justification in the public sphere for this. The raging bushfire that is debate on student fees has sucked the oxygen out of any discussion of the structural arrangement of the post-secondary system. The result is a severely underdeveloped public understanding of the issues involved.
The 2010 Gonski review of school funding was given a broad brief to examine funding structures across the school system, taking in a range of concerns including equity and learning outcomes. The result was a set of recommendations which elevated key issues from a technical perspective into the public domain, where it became possible for parties to compete on solutions. Lacking a similar watershed moment, the tertiary education system has seen a tangled mess of competing ideologies produce a string of incoherent reform agendas.
Each government (and each education minister) has approached the sector with a completely different understanding of what “The Problem” is, from Christopher Pyne’s deregulation package which would have increased total funding to universities to Minister Birmingham’s assertion that universities have seen “rivers of gold” and so can afford a funding cut. Each time the sector is dragged back into another round of reforms, there seems to be no connection to an over-arching narrative that explains where we’ve come from and where we’re going. Are universities overfunded or not? Do we need realigned funding to incentivize industry collaboration, or should researchers be doing the essential but unprofitable research that applied science relies on? Are there separate objectives for the VET and HE systems, or are we growing a unified pool of knowledge which crosses disciplinary and practitioner-researcher boundaries?
Lacking answers to these central questions, policymaking in the space is necessarily an exercise in autobiography. Basically everyone writing these policies went to university, so basically everyone has an extremely personal and visceral (mis)understanding of how the system works and what we should be doing to reform it; the result is a “stream-of-consciousness” approach.
How does Australia get out of this rut? We should appoint a panel of experts and give them a wide brief to examine how the system fundamentally operates, across both the VET and HE sectors. Reporting well before the 2019 election, such a review has a decent chance of giving us the shove that we need.
Sam Perkins is a Policy Analyst at FPL Advisory, writing on political risk and change management in regulatory affairs