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Towards a Reset for National Higher Education Policy

The expansion of the public university sector due to a boom in international revenues and the subsequent impact of COVID-19 has blindsided the Australian Higher Education System to a more fundamental change that has been going on in its operating environment.

The deeper implications of the Job Ready Package and the associated budget cuts have also not been seriously addressed in terms of the substantial change it could initiate - except for prognostications of widespread doom and gloom and the end of life as we know it.

There has been an assumption that the current business model would continue unabated. The main arguments set out in public commentaries are calls for more money to prop up the system and the seriousness of job losses. Few outside the Higher Education System, who are also doing it tough, have much sympathy for these concerns.

The rapid growth (boom) in public university higher education that started in 2014 could not be expected to continue on the exponential trajectory that had been set in train. Booms are always followed by busts with transformation, readjustment, and restructure in their wake. A bust represents an opportunity to break with the past and design a new future. To think that the past can be made to return is folly.

The campus model of the University is under challenge and the corporatist/managerialist paradigm introduced in the 1990s, with its heavy focus on financial performance metrics, is being rejected by students, staff, business, and the broader community. The corporatisation of public higher education and the substantial wealth that it has created, has made the advocates for more money in the current fiscal environment look like greedy rent-seekers.

The unified national system, also introduced in the 1990s, with its focus on uniformity and a one size fits all funding strategy, which has had the effect of creating a powerful industry within the public sector, is now being questioned about whether it continues to be fit for purpose.

Politicians talk up the value of the higher education industry for its economic impact. The rush to recruit international students to underwrite industry growth compromises commitment to the national higher education system.

Domestic enrolments are in decline, attrition rates are high, and slow completion rates are a cause for concern. DESE data shows that low SES students do not receive equitable access to higher education by a long shot. Full-time campus life and “the student experience” tend to be for the well off.

Moreover, campuses now cater for a wider range of business users and are coalescing with industry and urban development strategies. This is important for many universities to leverage their substantial property assets and build university income flows.

Regional University Centres are an important initiative to address some of these failings for the less well off, but so far the funding has been small and the government commitment short term. They also rely on extensive community funding. But their capacity to facilitate links with the TAFE sector through pathway programs and blended learning is highly innovative. Policy is currently really only in the “experimental” stage, but it is a good sign for future policy design.

So, what is the answer?

A serious higher education system policy review and series of recommendations might suggest a leaner, more diversified national system that addresses the needs and requirements of all stakeholders and constituencies. It would accommodate and appropriately resource a wide range of providers – public, private, and not for profit. It would draw on the framework established in the new Provider Category Standards.

A diversified system would encourage the growth of the five internationally recognised global research universities, currently heavily supported by international student income, and make a major long-term commitment to research investment.

The system would also encourage the growth and development of the six specialised technology universities and the ongoing development of the comprehensive universities established in the fast-growing outer metropolitan areas and in the growing large regional cities. These would cater for the full range of STEM and HASS fields of education.

The system would help refocus the declining growth universities into prestigious smaller organisations in their specific areas of specialisation, and the growth of non-university higher education institutions to meet demands for higher education for the professions - specifically in health and education and in accounting, finance, and general management.

Institutions of higher education would have a strong teaching and student engagement orientation. They would also focus on developing professional practice particularly in the creative sectors - for example in design, the creative and performing arts, and in the application of digital technologies across all industry categories.

Many of these institutions already exist but their growth has been hamstrung by the application of one model and the power of the public university lobby with its historic access to government resources and a narrative that a public university education is a superior product to the alternatives available.

Implementing this restructuring would require the development of specific funding models suited to each category of institution, together with incentives to implement and adopt change. It will require the development of new staffing agreements, in collaboration with education unions, to reflect the differing mission and purposes of each institutional category.

It will also require collaboration and support from industry and the community in an environment not dominated by the interests of one particular lobby organisation.

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