Report urges federal responsibility for a national tertiary education system.
Australian tertiary education and training needs a major overhaul to create a coherent national system that will better equip Australians for a changing world, a new report by KPMG Australia, published today, argues.
In Reimagining tertiary education: from binary system to ecosystem, KPMG proposes that the federal government should take primary responsibility for a single funding framework, to which states and territories will contribute, and aim to take us beyond the current outmoded binary division between the higher and vocational education sectors. Greater diversity of provision, a full demand-driven system and rewarding teaching to the same level as research are other key proposals in the report.
KPMG's report argues that the tertiary system needs to be ‘reimagined’ in order to meet the scale of likely change in society, economy and the future world of work. Its 10 recommendations also aim to re-enliven the reforms proposed by the 2008 Bradley Review, which argued for a more integrated tertiary education sector. The proposed revamp, based on recent expenditure, would cost an additional $1.7bn annually, it is estimated.
Professor Stephen Parker, KPMG Partner and Education Sector Leader, and principal author, said: “We have conducted discussions with over 50 experts in tertiary education and training. The striking thing was the sense that so many imaginative and ambitious ideas are currently being thwarted by rigid structures and policies, and divisions between federal and state governments. There is a sense of fatalism that necessary reform is not possible – but it is crucial for Australia’s future that, in an era about to be turned upside down by technological change, flexibility replaces rigidity in our tertiary education system. No-one knows exactly what the future holds so we must have more diversity in terms of providers and offerings. Quite simply, we need to move from a binary system – higher and vocational education – to an ecosystem.”
The report observes the perception that the university sector suffers from sameness, despite much marketing money being spent on differentiation, with many universities aspiring to similar goals, particularly improved rankings which come from the current privileging of research over teaching.
The report argues that the current approach also encourages universities to become comprehensive in scale and expand the range of qualifications that they offer students. Adding new study programs in disciplines that are already well-served nationally has become one of the surest ways for an Australian university to grow. This may contribute little to the overall depth and diversity of the tertiary education sector.
Tuition income is used to cross-subsidise research, and there is no direct financial reward for good teaching – a situation KPMG urges policymakers to address. The report proposes a teaching excellence framework to act as a counterpart to the current research assessment exercise. And to prepare the way for private, non-university providers to come within a unified tertiary loans scheme, public funding should be separately streamed for teaching, research and other intended purposes.
Stephen Parker said: “Our vision for a national system is one based on four principles: advancing innovation, fairness, efficiency and civil society. Arguably Australia will stand or fall in the future by how innovative we are – and innovation in tertiary education is vital if our students are to adapt to the changing world or work. Fairness can be addressed by a unified funding framework and policies to reduce the barriers that exist for disadvantaged people seeking access to courses which enjoy a graduate premium. Efficiency will be increased if institutions are incentivised to focus on those activities where they have a comparative advantage. Civil society is advanced by ongoing public support for history, languages, classics and ideas which the open market would not sustain.”
He added: “Our key recommendation is that we need a coherent national system. We think the Federal Government must assume primary responsibility for a unified funding framework, aided by an expert independent tertiary education pricing authority to assess the appropriate level of public subsidy for types of courses. We recognise that this will need to be negotiated with the states. It is essential, firstly that teaching activities required for each qualification are appropriately and reasonably costed and funded, and secondly that both governments and students make an appropriate contribution to the cost of each qualification.”
“In such a funding framework, loan finance would be available equitably for people to choose a VET option, more students will choose to undertake a shorter course than a bachelor level qualification lasting an average of 3.5 years, and the degree may become less dominant as a qualification. In our judgement the cost reductions in current higher education activity will outweigh the costs of expanding subsidies and loans at all higher education providers. In a coming world of automation, artificial intelligence and other transformative technologies, the key may be skills rather than discipline-based knowledge.
“The current system rewards those universities with high entrance requirements but this can operate to cement privileges of established elite institutions. If a ‘learning gain’ factor was rewarded, in effect the value added to a student, this could be an incentive to work hard to turn around the lives of disadvantaged students and trainees. A reversal in the trend of declining public support for the Vocational Education and Training sector is both socially and economically justified, and would help to ease Australia’s chronic labour market shortage of technicians and trade workers. But regulation must be tightened to ensure that all registered training organisations are of high quality and committed to the mission of education and training.”
“We should imagine the tertiary education ecosystem in the future not as a stratified, hierarchical one, but rather flipped on its side, with different types of providers each aiming to be the best in class”, he said.
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