Reach for the stars with trained minds and skilled hands: Reimagining tertiary education in Australia

Professor Stephen Parker AO, National Education Sector Lead
Professor Stephen Parker AO, National Education Sector Lead

It is 28 October 1968 on a hot day in a large Canberra paddock. Prime Minister John Gorton, Gough Whitlam and a group of senior ministers and officials are gathered. Strikingly, it is a bipartisan occasion, with the Prime Minister joking in his speech he hopes Mr Whitlam does not take offence at his reference to the idea of a liberal education. What has led to this gathering? It is the unveiling of the foundation stone for what was to be Australia’s first College of Advanced Education (CAE).

Mr Gorton stressed the personal satisfaction he took from the task because it symbolised the beginning of new things for the nation. “We must develop these colleges in a way which will give us plenty of flexibility; adapt the system to the changes now bearing down upon us – changes in the environment, in social attitudes, in the application of science and technology… changes which have a greater intensity about them now than we have experienced at any past time in the history of this country.”

Fifty years later, with a so-called Fourth Industrial Revolution bearing down upon us, the case is stronger still for a flexible, adaptable tertiary system. So too is the case for the Gorton vision: “If we are to reach for the stars”, he said, “then we must reach for them with trained minds and skilled hands.”

In a report published today written with Andrew Dempster and Mark Warburton, I argue we need to move away from the binary division between higher education and vocational education and training.

Conceptually, the distinction is unstable, with many university courses now strongly vocational, and many vocational courses with clear theoretical underpinnings.

Nationally, the tertiary system, if indeed it is a system, could charitably be described as patchy. Funding and loan schemes work inconsistently, and are the product of ad hoc arguments over the decades between Commonwealth and States. Some jurisdictions invest more than others in skills training.

Institutionally, we hear repeatedly about too much sameness within higher education – “mimetic drift” it has been called – due to internal culture, regulation, funding and social attitudes.

From a workforce perspective, we produce more graduates than ever before but have chronic skills shortages in many parts of the country.

We do not know what future economic and social change will require of tertiary education and training in the future. Maybe it’s more emphasis on cognitive, practical and social skills; maybe it isn’t. The best we can do, behind a veil of ignorance about the demands of change on Australia, is create the conditions where innovation is supported, fairness is valued, efficiency promoted and civil society strengthened.

The report, informed by conversations with 52 senior and experienced people in the sector, adopts the view expressed memorably by one: that the present system is “beyond tweaking; beyond tinkering”.

We make 10 recommendations aimed to provoke a national conversation about a tertiary sector which moves from a binary system to an ecosystem, where diversity is allowed to flourish in a context where stakeholder interests are well protected.

Our central recommendation is that we need a national tertiary education and training system, to be introduced progressively through negotiation between the Australian Government, states and territories, on the basis that the Commonwealth takes primary responsibility for a single tertiary education funding framework, from certificate one through to doctorate.

The Australian Qualifications Framework (AQF) needs revision, to reduce the distinctions between higher and vocational education and allow practical mastery of technique to be recognised throughout. The AQF should be the organising structure of the tertiary sector; not a priori views of what is “higher” and what is “vocational”.

To prepare for massive economic change coming our way the demand-driven funding system needs to be extended progressively down to certificate one, backed by a unified tertiary loans scheme run by the Commonwealth, with funding levels determined by an independent tertiary education pricing authority.

To promote diversity, and for other reasons, teaching should be funded separately from research. A teaching excellence framework should be developed which recognises and rewards institutions for the excellent education they provide. And there should no longer be a requirement of minimum levels of research to qualify as a university provider.

Our best estimate of the cost of these changes, based on 2016 funding levels, is $1.7 billion, being the mid-range between $1 billion and $2.4 billion and based on some assumptions, including that the focus might shift to some extent from bachelor degrees to other, shorter qualifications.

This might or might not sound a lot, but it is nothing compared with the loss of GDP if we do not have the innovative, trained and educated workforce we will need, and the retraining and upskilling that will be required throughout our (longer) lives.

The Bradley Review in 2008 called for an integrated tertiary system. We see our contribution as reviving aspects that were not acted upon, and imbuing them with the spirit of October 1968.

When John Gorton was calling for adaptability in the face of change bearing down upon us, The Beatles had just recorded Back in the USSR. The Beatles are gone. The USSR is gone. But the need to reach for the stars with trained minds and skilled hands is greater than ever.

Read the full report.

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