The federal government’s decision in December to take a $2.2 billion cut to university funding will do little to bring about much-needed reform of the post-secondary education sector.
The problem is not so much growth in student enrolments under the demand driven system – leading to a blow out in commonwealth grants – since the government uncapped undergraduate places in 2012, but that too many students felt pushed into three-year degrees simply because of a lack of alternatives.
As Peter Rathjen, the new vice-chancellor of the University of Adelaide told ABC Radio on Thursday morning, there is far too much fragmentation of the education system from pre-school through to PhDs; it is simply failing to deliver a holistic package to the advantage of students, the workforce and the economy.
“[The] education system is there to take the raw material that is human potential and turn it into the type of qualities that can make meaningful future lives,” Professor Rathjen said.
He argues that universities should be able to offer shorter, more flexible credentials that allow students to exit at any point between six months and three years with a qualification that is meaningful to an employer. Federal legislation only funds one type of degree – a full three year bachelors. If a student drops out, for whatever reason, they are left with nothing to show for it except for wasted time and a large debt.
“I’m an advocate for much more innovation in the higher education space,” Professor Rathjen said. “Australia is very sclerotic here.”
Professor Rathjen knows what he’s talking about. As head of the University of Tasmania, he successfully took a vision of integrating the university into the very fabric of the state’s economic future and won support for a ten-year plan to transform post-secondary education. That included two-year associate degrees that were closely linked the existing and emerging industries in various locations around the state.
“It’s (universities’) job to invent the future. We have to do that mystical thing of take what we have and turn it into something more valuable,” Professor Rathjen told the ABC.
“Universities [should be able to offer] programs that are there to help people get new skills; to help people who have lost their job acquire the kind of skills that can get them back into the workforce; [qualifications] that are cheaper, shorter and relevant to the future of industry and people.
“In Australia, we are not able to offer those products. I am advocate that we should get deregulation of the system and innovation into the system and then see if that does not improve what we are doing.”
Calls for a major overhaul of the post-secondary education sector are growing stronger and louder.
In October, Jennifer Westacott, chief executive of the Business Council of Australia told the National Press Club, the nation’s $20 billion annual spend on tertiary education was skewed toward university degrees with little regard for the needs of the economy or individual students.
Ms Westacott argued a single tertiary funding system that didn’t differentiate between vocational and higher education was essential to bring a halt to systemic distortions that too often pushes students into courses they are not suited to.
While the demand-driven system has been a success, mopping up unmet demand, improving equity measures and addressing skill shortages, it has been faced with mounting criticism in recent years. Not only does it skew student choice toward university, too often in courses that have little or no merit in the graduate employment market, it has led to a lowering of entry standards and a possible devaluation of degrees. At the same time, the vocational sector, TAFEs in particular, have been subjected to wildly speculative (and failed) marketisation policies while confronted by plummeting student demand and funding rates.
As Denise Bradley, whose report for the Rudd government in 2008 led to the introduction of the demand driven system, has been heard to mutter in private: the failure of any government from Rudd onward to implement the full 46 recommendations of her report, in particular the creation of a single and unified tertiary education sector, has produced distortions that resonate across the economy.
With an election looming, the current policy void provides ample opportunity to look afresh. Not only should Australia take inspiration from overseas, in particular renewed vigour in the UK, but to Germany and beyond.
But we should remember Australia has previously led the world in courageous and innovative education policy, namely income-contingent loans (commonly known as HECS), the commercial international student market and a once-proud TAFE sector. It can do it again.
In a world faced by wild unpredictability emanating from massive digital disruption, automation and geopolitical instability, our education system needs to be fit for purpose. Much needed creative and bold reform is overdue.