top of page

To the Inaugural Chair of the Australian Tertiary Education Commission

Updated: May 4

A Note to Interim Advisory Committee – 1 May 2024

A reflective polemic

Dear Inaugural Chair of ATEC

Congratulations, yours is a wonderful chance to ensure Australians have equal access to and opportunity for education, training and lifelong learning.  This is mega important as it has unchallengeable benefits for individuals, for social cohesion and for economic prosperity.

It’s an exquisitely complex and sensitive role.  The Accord is but a limited overture and you must score the full symphony. The Accord built big expectations, with ~30 of its 47 recommendations pitched for more funding, with major policy changes.  Implementation will fall under your watch. 

First off, it’s clear you are running into headwinds with competing fiscal demands. The national budget is about to land, but as guide the 23/24 Budget showed all Education as 7.1% of budget expenses and social welfare, health, and defence combined ~60%, all with compelling national imperatives.  Hence the Minister’s guidance HE priorities will take multiple budgets to fund. 

Besides ATEC itself, the HE budget will likely fund more (free) Uni places for disadvantaged and regional students, see a re-jig of HELP repayment policy, initial relief from student ‘placement’ poverty, and perhaps adjusted student income support. Each fit the ‘cost of living’ narrative.

I suspect all other issues will be in the ‘ATEC’s to solve basket’, e.g. unpick Job Ready Graduates. Look out for better wage subsidies for VET trade apprentices, given the massive trade skills shortages part of the ‘building’ crisis.  Migrants/students need housing, and Unis need students!  

Housing/construction is good example of the impact of here-and-now politics, where ‘high-viz-vests’ trump ‘research lab coats’.  Don’t fret over the Accord’s 2050 attainment targets.  They are a good horizon reference, but too far-reaching and dubious a forecast.  Besides, the ‘currency’ and status of a degree/qualification is evolving, even more so if the AQF gets - finally - reformed. 

These 2050 measures may need to be reconceptualised. Think of cricket’s transition from the traditions of test match players overtaken by commercially driven ‘micro-credentialed’ white-ball specialists playing ever shorter versions. Well-resourced big tech IT companies are now hiring and training new ‘players’ on attitude and aptitude alone, no degree needed.

Back of the envelope, Australia’s population by 2050 will be ~36 million, and its labour force ~22 million. The key is workers being more productive (in knowledge, skills and application) over the next 25 years.  Degree parchments will become old artefact, replaced by virtual skills passports.

May I raise issues of principal the Accord did not fully articulate, or ‘flirted and skirted’ around.  Perplexingly it left questions on your to do list about what exactly a university is, and its purpose!  

Chapter 2 is devoted to ‘skilling’.  The new funding model (rec. 40) is for ATEC to devise mission-based compacts with Unis.  First order is to “deliver Australia’s future skills needs”.  No explicit education, intellectual or cultural pursuits. Surely Unis are not to be super VET plus research?

It’s too sanguine for the Accord to say the current Objectives of the HE Support Act 2003 are suited.  Words matter, public money is mobilised in accord with the Act’s Objectives.  Presently only one sub-clause in 4 clauses uses the word ‘skill’ i.e. an ‘educated and skilled population’.  So, if ‘skilling’ is the new primary driver, then make this clear and consider amending the Act. 

ATEC needs to set a multipurpose-defined trajectory for Unis and track it with a clear compass.

The Accord generalised its advice on future institutional reform, yet it flirts a one-line suggestion of teaching-only universities (or teaching focused), without detailing the merits or international comparisons. No mention of Colleges of Advanced Education that existed up to ~1990s.

So ATEC is left to sort out whether the nation retains the existing legislated Provider Category Standards nexus of requisite levels of ‘world standard’ research to sustain ‘university title’ (with implied status and recurrent access to CSP/HELP that ‘universities’ enjoy); or retain the nexus but diminish required levels of research (per Accord); and/or we include teaching-only Unis.  National assessment of ‘world standard’ research is problematic with recent suspension of methodology.  

As a suggestion. If you go with teaching-only Unis, legislatively set them up to meet requisite levels of ‘world-standard’ industry/community engagement – it’s no harder to define than ‘world standard’ research. This would focus effort on the Accord’s merits of industry placements, internships, higher apprentices etc, as well as chase projects with companies in skills-based improvements in products/process/systems/waste and environmental targets etc.

For those Unis that remain research intensive - nail this to your bench. Basic research has its own economic return.  Time, quantum of effort and often serendipity play a part when basic become applied and is scaled to new technology product/service innovations. And it’s a global game of collaboration. If a country goes down a path that defunds and devalues knowledge-for-knowledge's sake, it’s a road that at its end will see us dropping out of the global premier league.

Your excellence at building effective relationships will be much needed!  My take is that ATEC stakeholders outside Canberra want continuity, predictability, fairness and efficiency in the new bureaucracy.  But most of all they want ATEC’s default posture to be ‘subsidiarity’ with this most evident in the structure and detailing of their customised Uni Compacts. In what ways?

You will receive valuable advice from Jobs and Skills Australia (JSA) on skills shortages and future demand. Analysis of national and regional skills demand/supply and gaps is valuable and fascinating, but it has real limits in application. Responding to skills needs is not like managing lines in supermarket fulfilment. Labour market data can usefully steer a broad skilling response but it’s no substitute for, nor can it overwrite, individual ‘lived experience’.  For example.

Despite career advice and free courses, ‘Sam’s’ study choice and first job in floristry is based on passion.  In time this shifts to horticulture, then viticulture and arrives at international wine market management - a laudable career. There are multi-thousands of such meandering career stories where people gather education, knowledge, and applied skills as job opportunity and passion afford. About half of VET graduates are in occupations not related to their training within 2-3 years of graduation.  You can’t model this ‘lived experience’, but you can facilitate it.

ATEC in its planning and funding functions needs to allow students full freedom to pursue their interests and have universities/TAFEs decide how best to facilitate this by offering a span of quality courses of either academic pursuit or deliberate practical content. Unis to be viable entities need recurring block funding, with HELP financing, and no crushing admin complexity.  

Your pricing authority role is an ever-narrowing rabbit hole.  Do enough to get a good fix on discipline-based price/cost range and benchmarks that co-promote both quality and efficiency in best use of public funds.  This way you can give guidance to any ‘bad practice’ outliers.

Be wary about price signals or fee-free courses encouraging students to enrol in ‘priority skills’. This gives a free kick to those students who always intended to enrol in such courses and leaves the question of additionality, how many more enrol because of the signal?  Do these people then graduate, and do they stick long in the related occupation. JSA’s evidence will be valuable.

The Accord’s identification of ‘placement poverty’ throws up a tough problem, but it’s not new. Any new ‘placement payment’ is akin in purpose and duration to existing VET traineeship wage subsidies, without a ‘Contract of Training’.  Employers are typically disinclined to (part) pay for educationally required placements. Read ‘Katrina’s, Jayne’s and Mitchell’s stories’  on student unpaid placements under the Fair Work Act. The present Act does students no clear favours.

If the government is minded to now make placement payments for nursing, care and teaching professions, it can’t be left unnoticed these occupations have especially high levels of job exits within 5-10 years of graduation, and major retention problems in regions.  JSA can advise.

The Interim Accord spruiked a Universal Learning Entitlement stating it “should sit at the centre of the HE funding system”.  Final advice only sought more funding and offered an evolved funding model.  Great if government funds the lot, but you may only get existing funds plus extra tied to explicit purpose.  Only few EU nations tax enough to afford ‘free’ university!  Future burden may be on all of governments, students, and employers.  (NB: do seek data on employers’ contributions).

The end vision is a fairer and national funding/financing framework that has a tertiary (HE and VET) wingspan.  This needs all States buy in.  Students that are most disadvantaged get most public support and those who have already had clear benefit of public support (e.g. graduated employees and their employers) expected to carry some costs, or else students self-finance.

Australia has a sophisticated HELP system.  Compared with OECD nations, it pushes significant impost on private contribution (loan repayments). The Accord overlooked prior PC’s advice  about HE/VET sector integration about the span of HELP across the AQF and where loans should not go. 

The Accord did recommend (rec. 6) HELP be rejigged to cover HE level priority micro credentials (stackable), so ignoring a decade’s evidence showing VET micro credentials as Units or Skill Sets operate extensively on a fee for service basis, with no HELP. Zero thought of sector integration. 

Further, interoperable HE and VET sectors will not work effectively at scale in the absence of a tertiary funding/financing framework, coupled with AQF reform. The Accord lamely repeats past advice about fixing RPL and credit transfer within and between institutions. This won’t cut it.

Lastly, re self-funded education.  The ATO’s narrow stance on tax deductibility of expenses must be recast.  At present you can legitimately claim only if costs are directly related to your current job and study does, or is likely to, give you a wage rise, and you don’t lose your job!  Read Louis’s and Callum’s stories. Sensible rules can exclude claims for the famed frivolous basket weaving!

Best of fortune building the culture and operations of ATEC.  It’s odd really - only in Canberra do you erect a new bureaucracy as a buffer body layered next to an existing bureaucracy, which despite the latter’s very genuine best intent and efforts, events have now deemed it not fit for purpose.

Finally, best you assume ATEC is temporary.  Go absolutely flat out, and complete your top priorities asap, as history suggests you have about 4-5 election cycles at best.

Good luck!

PS Do read your predecessor's 1985 Review of the Commonwealth Tertiary Education Commission about 2 years before it closed. 

Dr Craig Fowler is Director of JCSF Consulting.

50 views0 comments


bottom of page