Politics Analysis

Government report stresses need for reform on higher education

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(State Library of Victoria | Image by Pixabay, via Pexels)

The recent outline of the Albanese Government's plans for tertiary education reform, highlights key shortcomings and suggests movement in a positive direction, writes Rosemary Sorensen.

WHAT FEDERAL Education Minister Jason Clare initiated with the Australian Universities Accord (AUA) is valuable. He’s not Gough Whitlam, whose reforms changed the lives of a generation of Australians, but given the state of play right now, this aspirational examination of higher education is a good thing.

The 'AUA Final Report Document– released Sunday, 25 February – makes the case not for fiddly fixes to a system that is in dire straits but for fundamental changes such as, in Clare’s words, “different universities doing different things”.

It’s a reform that will take decades, not years — although Clare has hinted that the May budget may include a change to the student debt scheme. The goal is to double the number of university students to 1.8 million by 2050.

The summary of recommendations begins by suggesting for the tertiary education system,

'...a new objective... underpinning a strong, equitable and resilient democracy, and driving national economic and social development and environmental sustainability.'

In other words, this is a report that steps back – or up – from the university as a skills provider overseen by top-heavy bureaucracies focused on cost-cutting. It still ideologically remains compatible with the neo-liberal boundaries of economic rationalism but not at the expense of “democracy” — which is a startling word to find in a 21st-Century definition of a tertiary education system.

Some of the recommendations are rhetorically soft, such as the section about improving 'pathways'  by 'removing barriers for education and skills', or reinforcing 'modular stackable skills'. Because this is what bureaucracies might call a “vision statement”, this kind of language covers broad aims that will then, if adopted, be the task of a proposed Australian Tertiary Education Commission.

Even before that happens, however, the report recommends establishing an 'Implementation Advisory Committee', comprising 'stakeholders and those from across the tertiary education system', who are – presumably – not the same people.

The big-ticket items for the quick-hit news cycle include the proposal to ditch the Job-Ready Graduate system introduced by the former Coalition Government, which made arts degrees more expensive, in an attempt to entice people away from those wishy-washy humanities subjects – so despised by conservatives – towards vocation-obvious courses, which didn’t work anyway. The recommendation in the report is for a move to 'a student contribution scheme based on lifetime earnings'.

Embedded in that part of the report is a zinger, which reminds us that things are crook in ways that no quick-fix will solve: 'There is a need to improve the quality of learning and teaching'. There is a reference to 'new teaching technologies', which is a bit of a worry, but the report also wants the Government to 'encourage minimum teaching qualifications for higher education teaching roles'.

Excellent academics are often promoted out of teaching and what now passes as teaching in universities is entrusted to part-timers paid at casual rates. What would constitute a minimum teaching qualification?

While this might seem an uncontroversial proposal, it’s surely a can of worms when it comes to assessing the qualifications of university academics whose job is to teach — rather than research or run departments.

And yes, boomer-speaking here: academics who taught me vocationally useless subjects like French literature and visual arts were – I reckon – perfectly qualified because they knew their stuff, loved their subject and were clearly overjoyed when a student showed interest and aptitude. Ah, those were the days.

So, this report's recommendation that the quality of learning and teaching needs to improve is a brilliant topic that could take us into rich and rewarding territory — if only these “stakeholders” and tertiary education system people can slough off the shackles of economic rationalism. A bit less neoliberal-speak and a lot more philosophy – as well as ethics and history – would help these endeavours.

According to this report, too, Australia’s universities punch above their weight in research and development (R&D) because expenditure in R&D in Australia 'is low for an advanced economy'.

Again, here’s a big discussion to be had about how university research is done, how it is funded and who gets to use it.

There’s a nice motherhood statement in the report that suggests:

'All Australian governments should lead by example by increasing their use of university research and by calling on the capacities of Australia’s universities to address the nation’s pressing economic, social, health and environmental problems.'

A disinterested observer might ask how come that’s not already happening.

And that hypothetical observer might also take a look at the impressive panel of 'eminent Australians' who were tasked with this review. 

Chair Professor Mary O’Kane AC – for example – chairs a slew of boards, including an organisation enigmatically called Silverchain, which turns out to be a “respite care” organisation. O’Kane’s role in this well-organised, eloquent and meaty document was very much oversight rather than hard yards and the actual writing, you’d think.  

The consulting work was done by the Department of Education with input from one of those ubiquitous consultancies much-used by governments, Oxford Economics Australia. No stone was left unturned in this year-long $2.7 million assessment of the issues needing to be addressed.

Clare delivered the report well, mentioning his own experience to underline how much harder it is for regional students – for example – and getting the rhetoric very right on the importance of tertiary education for a future workforce.

Whether this puts a dent in Australia’s anti-expert belligerence, the still-solid bigotry against universities as ivory towers, and the mythologising of self-made and self-taught rich people, remains to be seen.

It is, however, refreshing to read a report that combines pragmatic information about the future of tertiary education with ideas about the kind of society we want and need.

Which is, you’d think, very dependent on that other education conversation going on right now about equity for schools.

Rosemary Sorensen was a newspaper, books and arts journalist based in Melbourne, then Brisbane, before moving to regional Victoria, where she founded the Bendigo Writers Festival, which she directed for 13 years.

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