Adding the diversity dimension

There is a long history of Australia and the UK shadowing each other in HE policy; it’s almost as though one acts as a testing ground for the other’s upcoming reform agenda.

The Labor opposition has already put its cards on the table for an overarching review of the post-18 sector should it win government next year and certainly there will be a lot of interest in the findings of Philip Augur’s impending report.

The case for a radical revamp of Australia’s HE regulatory and funding systems as a structural means of adding to diversity to the current monochromatic mix is the subject of a paper presented last week at the inaugural seminar of the Monash Commission.

Taking on sacred cows

It’s a paper that should be taken seriously – very seriously – if only because two of its three authors were recently very senior bureaucrats in the federal education department. Now with the consultancy outfit the Nous Group, Robert Griew and Jessie Borthwick know their stuff.

In their paper Diversity in Australian tertiary education: more than words? the authors argue that a more dynamic system that offers real student choice can be constructed within the current structural framework that includes the Australian Qualifications Framework, as well as regulation and funding responsibilities. But in order to do so it would have to take on some very sacred cows: primarily the teaching-research nexus and the subsequent cross-subsidisation of research from teaching grants.

Obviously, this is far from the first time a separation of teaching and research activities and funding have been proposed. But as the university sector exceeds a 40% participation rate among 25-34 year olds, questions have to be asked about whether current funding arrangements are wasteful, inefficient and actually serve the best interests of all students.

As Griew, Borthwick and their colleague Cameron Barnes point out: “Even while sector leaders and commentators talk of the virtue of diversity and choice, our government systems studiously avoid unpacking and segmenting what the community want from our universities, colleges and registered training organisations, and what their individual contributions to the national economy and well-being might be. Universally applicable grand policy solutions are prioritised over solutions to what individual communities, groups, localities and individual institutions seek.”

And, and they point out, “the sector falls in line”, mainly for reasons of self-interest, but also because the status quo is always better than the unknown.

Breaking the teaching-research nexus

The authors say it stretches credibility to argue the teaching-research nexus is the foundation stone of all undergraduate teaching – especially in a system that now educates four times the proportion of young people as in the 1980s when the Hawke government introduced the unified system (ie, turned the teaching-only colleges of advanced education into universities).

They argue that are many examples of excellent teaching in the system (but we wouldn’t know because we don’t have a TEF) that are not connected to research activity and many instances of research activity that is unconnected to teaching activity.

All this comes down to one simple – and very contested – point. Teaching grants in Australia include a proportion of money intended for research. That’s fine if the research is actually informing the teaching. But, we don’t know whether it is, how much research in which areas is being cross-subsidised and whether there are actually any benefits to the majority of students stemming from this opaque formula.

Adding V to diversity

The authors join the growing chorus of voices calling not just reform of universities but of the vocational education sector, arguing the prejudicial funding structures that preference universities over TAFEs (our further education colleges) are also not serving the best interests of students and the economy.

They agree that “the educational basis of vocational education needs modernisation” (hence all eyes on the Augur report), including a “serious reinvigoration of teaching by establishing requirements for curriculum, higher teaching standards and greater evidence of pedagogy and academic rigour, which will make for a more level playing field with HE”.

The problem, of course, is with threats to university self-interest. Suggesting that universities might become teaching only unleashes the most ungodly howls of derision in outer-metro and regional campuses (those institutions with the lowest research profiles and the most likely to be targeted with the teaching-only mantle).

This paper doesn’t have any concrete answers and in many ways it covers old ground. But we are all acutely aware that Australia has some systemic problems: a vocational system that is not fit for purpose, a massified university system in an environment of declining graduate outcomes, the looming fourth industrial revolution. All of this dysfunction is happening within an inefficient funding system. Surely something has to give.

One response to “Adding the diversity dimension

  1. The increased homogenisation of HEIs following their massive expansion and elimination of formal differences between them is a challenge to the market-led approach in both the UK and Australia. Competitive markets are intended to stimulate greater choice, at least in theory, but clearly that has not worked.

    Fortunately, Australia doesn’t quite have the enduring legacy of the British class system, with its deeply engrained massive inequality in secondary education that makes any notion of differentiation at tertiary level (which would be seen as amplifying such inequality) a political no no. So establishing the type of diverse post-secondary education that Australia will need to meet the changing demands of an increasingly automated and technological future is not out of the question. But it will take courage and a willingness to innovate, rather than falling back on old models.

    Some countries in Europe, most notably Germany, have retained and modernised differentiation in post-secondary education with considerable success. The key is to avoid vocational and technical education being perceived as lower in quality or status, and the only way to do that is to create truly excellent vocational and technical institutions. These need to be properly resourced, encouraged to engage and integrate with industry in a far more complete way than has been the case, and crucially given the same political influence (through representation on high-level governmental boards) as the traditional universities.

    The question is whether a future government and the Australian HEI sector have the courage to take such steps. A safety-first approach to reform is likely to see us revisiting this very same question in another decade or two, having squandered numerous opportunities in the meantime.

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