Going tertiary down under

For David Hughes, the Australian Universities Accord holds up a mirror to the challenges facing England’s tertiary education sector

David Hughes is Chief Executive of the Association of Colleges

When working in Australia in the 1990s, I was struck by the speed at which change happened compared with the UK.

In 1996, a new national government saw abrupt (and therefore quite painful) shifts in public policy. However, there was the distinct advantage of the policies being clearly signalled and unambiguous.

Now, less than two years into a new government in Canberra, it looks like that might be happening again, this time with the publication of a review “to drive lasting reform in Australia’s higher education system” which concluded with proposals for “higher education and university research – and a broader tertiary education system – that meet the current and future needs of the nation.”

It’s a stark contrast to how we usually experience public policy shifts in England, although some may argue that we led the way with Philip Augar’s review of post-18 education and funding. Announced by Theresa May in February 2018, there was a very clear ambition to look at ways to ensure more people have a genuine choice post-18 of high quality technical and academic options. The report, published in May 2019, embraced clear principles of equity and fairness which would “bring considerable social and economic benefits to individuals and the country at large.”

Sadly, nearly five years later, those principles have not led to the changes needed to make that vision a reality.

Time will tell whether Australia can implement change more quickly, but we still lack a clear vision for tertiary education in England and most of the proposals in that report have not been implemented, or only partially. In particular, the gap between funding for adults who participate in higher education and the rest still remains large, with no plans to change it. In fact, it gets worse every year as participation in HE is allowed to grow, with no cap, whereas according to the Institute for Fiscal Studies, the total and capped spending on classroom-based adult education in 2021-22 was more than two-thirds lower in real terms than in 2003-04.

As we head to the general election within the next 11 months, that lack of a vision from all political parties for post-18 education and skills looks neglectful. In some ways it is unsurprising, given the parlous state of the government’s finances and the growing size of student debt – it would take a brave politician to announce major changes to the HE funding system in the run-up to a general election. They would either be pilloried for daring to impose restrictions to HE numbers because of the risk that it would “put a cap on ambition,” or they would be put to task for announcing additional expenditure which would risk even more government debt.

Holding up a mirror

What’s so interesting about the Australian review is how far it mirrors the challenges we face – the social and economic megatrends, poor policy coordination, need for higher and more inclusive participation in higher learning and the inevitable funding pressures on the government, institutions and students.

Similarly, there is much to recognise in the broad diagnosis of the failings of the system, including no overall stewardship of the whole system and far too many initiatives which don’t add up to a coherent whole.

What is perhaps surprising is that a review asked to look at HE ends up firmly in the tertiary space, with a very ambitious target of 80 per cent tertiary attainment target for 18 to 34-year-olds by 2050, with half of that group holding a vocational or technical qualification. In Australia, this brings into play the TAFEs – the equivalent of our further education colleges – and the establishment of a new Tertiary Commission, possibly a bit like CTER in Wales or even the Labour party proposal for Skills England.

Articulating the differences

It’s easy to get carried away by the similarities, and important to recognise the differences between the English and Australian systems, which sometimes can be subtle but very important.

The review, for instance, says little about the potential for articulation agreements probably because TAFEs and universities don’t have the same history of partnership that they do in England (and even more so in Scotland). It has, I would suggest, an incomplete view of how a tertiary system in a place might operate, with little more than an exit/deficit model “requiring that higher education providers – through a regular cycle of curriculum review – establish early exit and articulation pathways from bachelor degree courses, at diploma and associate degree levels, for students who decide to withdraw before completing the whole degree.”

The report also misses out on some important facets of further education, with no mention of the role TAFEs could play as a strategic support to employers, particularly small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs), in innovation and business development.

These shortcomings though are not to take away from the vision, which is set squarely on a tertiary education and research system which is “vital to Australia’s future as an economically prosperous, socially equitable and environmentally sustainable nation.”

That feels like a vision worth considering for an approach in England which I’d love our politicians to work with us on – across the tertiary system.

2 responses to “Going tertiary down under

  1. The massive expansion envisaged for the Australian tertiary sector is something I would love the UK to follow, “…… with half of that group holding a vocational or technical qualification.” but I wonder what the other half will be studying? I hope it is not just about helping those who have dropped out from studying university undergraduate degrees.

    We need much greater clarity regarding the role of FE Colleges and the wide range of other sector providers offering apprenticeships and other qualifications.

    For example, are these FE providers required to :
    1 Help those aged 16 to 21 ( who have not stayed at school or gone to university) or those of any age over 16 -pehaps up to age 75?
    2 Help only those studying vocational courses or studying a wider range of qualifications and if so, what?
    3 Help those studying qualifications from level 2 to level 5 or a wider range up to level 9?
    4 Help only those who are publicly funded by any source (Local Authority, OfS, Department of Education) or also by employers (including apprenticeships) and by individual paying students?

    When it comes to independent providers, offering all or some of the above, how will funding of land, buildings and equipment be handled? Will they be able to access funds directly from Government as do FE providers or will they have to use their own money ?

  2. I agree that it is surprising that a review nominally about an Australian universities accord should consider not only non university higher education providers, but the whole of tertiary education, particularly since the review panel does not include anyone with substantial expertise in vocational education and did not engage substantially state governments, which you note are mostly responsible for vocational education.

    But I do not agree that the report is substantially incomplete in not discussing articulation agreements. Australian vocational and higher education institutions already have numerous articulation agreements, with one described on page 90. The review panel seeks to advance beyond these agreements in its discussion of credit transfer on pages 89 to 91.

    Further, Australia has a much more substantial history of partnerships between colleges and universities than anywhere in the UK. These are called dual sector universities and are mentioned on page 104. Australia has had dual sector universities since the sectors were explicitly identified in national policy in the 1960 (Moodie, 2008) and currently has 6 dual sector universities.

    The report seeks to develop a new kind of dual sector provision:

    ‘TAFEs [colleges] could be assisted to gradually broaden the levels and fields of higher education qualifications they offer and become a new model for dual-sector, teaching only delivery. This might be achieved through a partnership . . . with an existing university’ (page 256).

    This is the subject of the panel’s recommendation 37(e):

    ’37. That in its role as the steward, the Australian Tertiary Education Commission address the appropriate diversity of tertiary education providers of varying size, shape, purpose and location to meet national and place-based needs, including by:

    ‘e. encouraging more cross-provision of VET by higher education providers, and vice versa, such that dual sector provision becomes commonplace’ (page 257).

    Moodie, Gavin (2008) Australia: The emergence of dual sector universities. In Neil Garrod and Bruce Macfarlane (Eds.), Challenging boundaries. Managing the integration of post-secondary education. Routledge, Taylor and Francis (pages 59-76). New York.


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