Redesigning Australia’s tertiary sector

 29 October 2015


If there is the collective will, a window of opportunity has opened for a serious discussion about the future architecture of Australian tertiary education and the funding mechanisms that would encourage genuine diversity to flourish, write Richard James and Leo Goedegebuure.


Pay hereAfter two lost years the sector desperately needs funding reforms. But how can the debate be placed on a new footing? We believe the answer lies in returning to first principles: what kinds of institutions, and what mix of institutions, would best serve Australia?

Our thinking is simple: let’s develop a farsighted vision for the character of the tertiary education sector as the precursor to developing a restyled funding, per­formance measurement and regulatory framework. This may be an ambitious idea but the logic behind it is compelling.

The Turnbull government’s decision not to pursue Christopher Pyne’s deregulation package is very welcome. There is a risk, however, that any hastily revamped student fees package will fall into the same ruts that beset Pyne.

One reason for the failure of the Pyne package is that the debate largely put the cart before the horse. Somewhat bizarrely, the funding reform was launched without any discussion of the structure of the higher — let alone tertiary — education system.

We believe lip-service has been paid to diversity in higher education. The reality is that a one-size-fits-all funding and regulatory system has made all universities tread roughly similar paths. Given that universities had different starting positions, this logically implies that we see some diversity in institutional trajectories. But this is curtailed by a policy straitjacket. As a simple example we need look no further than the Melbourne Model. This is surely a desirable example of diversification yet it has required the University of Melbourne to be treated as an exception within the national policy framework. This is hardly the flexibility needed to future-proof Australian society.

We know that the 21st century is about continuous and increasingly rapid change and complexity. We also know that our economy primarily is a services economy. This squarely places us into the knowledge economy, requiring a highly skilled and developed workforce that is adaptable, creative and able to operate across disciplines, work in teams, be (inter)nationally engaged, and trained for jobs that do not yet exist. To achieve this, Australia needs universal tertiary education participation driven by a carefully differentiated tertiary sector.

Because our innovation ecosystem is diverse and our future challenges complex, the tertiary system should have the diversity to match, following Ashby’s Law of Requisite Variety. This poses serious design issues, but nevertheless is our only way forward.

Consider the University of Tasmania as an example of an institution with a distinctive mission and particular challenges and opportunities. It must use research and innovation to help build new industries for the island. It must also work with educationally disadvantaged communities to help raise the socioeconomic profile and lift school completion and tertiary participation rates. It must work with local industries to lift productivity. And it must install the genes of innovation and entrepreneurship in its students. These complex challenges require a complex set of actions at a variety of levels, ranging from the lower certificates to the (professional) doctorate and across the full research spectrum from blue skies to seriously applied.

Perhaps in a single university and TAFE state system these challenges can be met by single institutions with multiple missions, but it is very easy to see how very different sets of activities and focuses are needed, how these are to be linked with key stakeholders, and how distinctly different incentive schemes need to be built to drive behaviour. It is almost impossible to orchestrate this from a single vantage point with a single framework.

Australia as a nation faces a similar problem, but on an even greater scale. We do not suggest for a moment that the creation of a differentiated sector and complementary funding model will be an intellectually or politically simple task. Clearly it won’t be, but it is absolutely necessary if we are to remain a prosperous and socially cohesive society. This means that the assumptions that are the legacy of John Dawkins’s unified national system have to be confronted.

More explicit institutional differentiation is an unwelcome prospect for many people, for it raises the spectres of vertical stratification, funding inequalities and social polarisation. These are legitimate concerns to be taken into account in the system design process. But these should not be the bottlenecks that deter us from the challenge of building a truly diverse system.

Is there the imagination and courage for such a truly creative feat of policy-shaping? A tough gig for a young minister in Simon Birmingham, perhaps, but equally the kind of challenge a reforming politician ought to be willing to embrace. The frightening alternative for Birmingham is fruitless sifting through the embers of the Pyne package in the hope that something can be recovered.

Richard James is director of the Melbourne Centre for the Study of Higher Education and Leo Goedegebuure is director of the LH Martin Institute at the University of Melbourne.

This article was first published in The Australian on October 2015.

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