Unpopular solutions in education

One of the best albums in Leonard Cohen’s later years was “Popular Problems”. When he was asked what he might call the next one, he suggested “Unpopular Solutions”.

Tertiary education in Australia has some popular problems, which we have admired for years: at least enough for an EP (that’s an extended play vinyl record). No labels have signed up for unpopular solutions in the last three decades, however. A hard rain is starting to fall.

A decent EP of popular problems in tertiary education would open with a rollicking number about over-reliance on international students from a small number of countries. The tune has been hummed and whistled for years but now The Beatles’ “Helter Skelter” suggests a gutsier, pre-punk beat for ensuring it is ignored no longer.

There’s enough material for a second track on whether international students have been welcomed here sufficiently, given the contribution they make to the country. “These boots are made for walking” suggests some descending notes for the intro.

My side two opens with a lament on the public vocational education and training system; there goes the sun as it were. TAFE institutions have basically struggled for years through declining state government funding and federal policies that have elevated higher education. Public education has become residualised. Private providers can only be profitable in courses with low capital investment. Apprenticeships are going over a cliff. Between them, governments and the market are failing to provide the types of training and delivery that the economy will need for recovery.

We finish side two with some cheeky riffing on managerialism. For years, established and aspirant academics seem to have been getting “no satisfaction” from management.

Enough. Here are some unpopular solutions.

First, put all public vocational education under federal control, from 2021, so that tertiary education is integrated, planned and resourced as a whole.

In our paper, Reimagining Tertiary Education, co-authored with Andrew Dempster and Mark Warburton, I recommended this in 2018. The heavens descended from Universities Australia, although not from TAFE Directors Australia, business or industry; and it’s still the right thing to do. No amount of piecemeal reviews will take us to where we need to be, in time.

State governments might object but at different times various states have supported the idea. Now they all must. They might feel some private relief at the prospect.

Second, allow universities to opt out of the Commonwealth Grants Scheme and charge domestic tuition fees, backed by FEE-HELP loans rather than HECS-HELP. This is not the same fee deregulation proposal which dominated 2014, and which all vice-chancellors seemed to support (except me!).

The previous version of fee deregulation would have allowed universities to charge fees on top of the CGS. My version would force a choice: take the relative safety of tax-payers’ money or see whether the offer is of such value that student demand is there at higher tuition fee levels.

Also, students will be debt averse in 2021, whereas the evidence in 2014 indicated that HECS-HELP dulled the price signal too much and tuition debt would sky-rocket for many students.

The need is different also. Extra revenue in 2014 would have floated further inefficiencies in the system. Now Australia is much more exposed to a falling international student market than its competitor countries. Australia’s research effort will be materially affected by that loss of revenue, possibly for 5 to 10 years. There is a valid and urgent need for the money now.

If universities end up divided into those that take tax-payers’ money for teaching and those that don’t, the former would have more to share between them and could commit to exacting equity and excellence measures. The latter would be challenged to demonstrate to the market the extra benefits of studying with them.

Third, reward research excellence, don’t just measure it.

It’s hard to know whether we are a Vegemite or Marmite country. The system does allow any university to have a go at winning big, but the consequence of everyone being eligible is that public funding is spread more thinly.

We need now to raise the bar significantly for eligibility for public research funding, whilst allowing universities to become scholarship-intensive and opt out of research: also recommended by Dempster, Warburton and me in 2018. This contradicts the recent rousing endorsement of the status quo in the review of provider categories. The teaching-research nexus is a chimera in the real experience of most students (and their sessional teachers), and we can’t now afford the myth.

By making public research funding available to fewer institutions it will go further in areas of real research excellence.

Fourth, bring back the academics.

There now needs to be a relentless focus on the size of university managements, the efficiency of structures, systems and processes, and the use of other means of administering what needs to be administered, including the use of platforms shared between institutions. There is no actual need for 40 separate administrations (or more than 40 when TAFEs are included).

Through transforming operations, we could free up a lot of resources with which to give career opportunities to young, inspiring academics and trainers.

These suggestions might cause attacks of the vapours not seen since Jane Austen’s day, but there are two powerful, central justifications. Today’s and tomorrow’s students will be paying taxes all of their working lives to repay the cost of a crisis for which we were all unprepared. They can’t be expected to do that and carry a sub-optimal tertiary system which is stuck in the past. And business and industry will have its work cut out in a post-pandemic era to recover markets and create new jobs. They need a reformed and integrated tertiary system supporting it.

In the event, Leonard Cohen’s final album was “You Want It Darker”. I prefer Unpopular Solutions.

A shorter form of this was first published in The Australian.

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