In the end, it’s how the Accord is used that will matter

Some in Australian universities are saying the sector “lost” the Accord. Ant Bagshaw is focusing on what happens now

Ant Bagshaw is a Senior Advisor in L.E.K. Consulting’s Global Education Practice and co-editor, with Debbie McVitty, of Influencing Higher Education Policy

In Canberra last month, a thousand people from across the higher education sector met for Universities Australia’s annual jamboree. Somewhat gauchely called a “solutions summit”, the conference was mostly a place to talk about Universities Accord.

Weighing in at over 400 pages, and with 47 meaty recommendations, the Accord’s final report is a massive undertaking. It’s been more than a year in the making. An expert panel led by former University of Adelaide vice chancellor Mary O’Kane received hundreds of submissions, met with dozens of interested parties, and commissioned multiple working groups to dive into targeted elements of the sector like student funding and research.

The remit was broad: think Augar, plus plus. The Accord intended to cover the future size and shape of the sector, funding, research and the connection between the higher and vocational education systems. In a country where states have primary responsibility for the vocational sector while the federal government funds universities, this is a particularly complex set of arrangements.

The skills agenda

On a recent episode of the Wonkhe Show podcast, Lancaster University’s Paul Ashwin praised the lofty ambitions for the Accord but lamented the primacy of skills over knowledge, and the economy over society:

The version of education that’s being given here is focused around microcredentials, a utilitarian version of education rather than engagement with knowledge that changes students’ sense of who they are and what they can do in the world.

Paul is spot on. There is a pervasive skills narrative in the Accord report. While it proposes undoing the previous government’s Job-Ready Graduates package, it accepts the premise that higher education’s role is to enable students to fill the economy’s skills gaps. Here there is common ground between the Labor Party in power and its opposition in the Liberal-National Coalition.

A comparatively narrow focus on skills is already strong in the Australian sector. There is little (to none) of the programme coherence designed into the UK’s degrees. Student flexibility drives the system, and there is an atomisation of learning in the “build your own adventure” approach to module-by-module degrees. The flexibility is a strength of the system, but the cost is to a bigger sense of what the educational experience is trying to deliver. Accord aside, we’re already talking about a different system of HE.

Who won the Accord?

The idea of an accord has a special place in Australian politics. Its origin is in the 1983 deal struck between the Labor government and unions, the Prices and Incomes Accord. That context is important – the report isn’t just from the sector, it’s supposed to be a collaborative process.

It may look from the outside like the Australian higher education sector has driven the narrative around skills – possibly even undermining its own educational purpose. But this misses the politics of the policy development process: several senior leaders are saying – privately, at least – that universities “lost” the Accord.

In addition to O’Kane, the expert panel had a vice chancellor on it, but it also had representatives from politics and industry. The secretariat came from the federal Department of Education, and the direction and terms of reference from the minister. The Accord report must be seen in this context – it is not a product of a sector-run process.

The sector has welcomed the Accord report, though we should remember that its leaders also readily endorsed the Job-Ready Graduates package. Inevitably, there will be lots of manoeuvring to try and influence the government’s response. Ultimately, it’s that response – what will be approved, and paid for – which really matters. Rather than assume that the sector has shot itself in the foot, we could think of this as aiming for the best deal given material political and fiscal constraints.

Policy borrowing

There are commentators recommending that England follow Australia in commissioning an accord following an anticipated Labour victory. Be careful what you wish for.

The Australian experience is that the process takes a long time, and requires a huge investment of resources from across the whole sector. And it may not result in solving any short-term issues facing universities In England – there’s a funding crisis which doesn’t need an accord to be understood. Accords might be useful for long-term strategy, but the health of the sector also needs urgent tactical relief.

Close readers of the Australian report will also see a host of new regulatory mechanisms, including an Aussie version of the Teaching Excellence Framework. There’s much to be delighted about in the Accord report – particularly the projected growth of tertiary participation, and government as an exemplary user of universities’ research – but there are plenty of challenges to the university autonomy. A proposed Tertiary Education Commission may be more OfS than HEFCE; we can hope that Australia learns from the Welsh system too, but that seems like hope for a nuance too far.

The UK’s HE systems could learn from the Australian Accord, particularly its assertion of the importance of tertiary education to the future success of the nation. But let’s wait and see what the government says in its formal response, and where higher education fits alongside the many other pressures facing the nation. Only then will we know whether this process results in the more positive future for the sector that we all hope for.

2 responses to “In the end, it’s how the Accord is used that will matter

  1. I agree that the most important issue is what the government implements. The review made 47 recommendations, many of them substantial, and many to conduct further work. I think it very unlikely that all the major recommendations will be implemented by this minister, by this government, or even by a re-elected Labor government.

    So I suggest that a big weakness of the review panel’s report is that it offered no priorities on either the importance or timing of implementation.

    But I do not agree that the emphasis on higher education developing skills emanates from higher education. I suggest that this is just higher education parroting back to government what it believes government wants to hear, since the Australian government has itself been parroting employers advocates’ insistence that higher education must develop work ready skills to compensate for employers’ big cuts to their investment in their own staff’s induction and training.

    Much the same happened from the 1960s when higher education internalised the view that it should develop human capital, which was put to UK universities in the Robbins report (1963, paragraph 25) and to Australian universities by the Martin committee (1965, p. 1).

  2. I agree with Gavin Moodie that the lack of prioritisation is a weakness in the final report. It was there in the interim report and the government responded accordingly. With the final report we’re left to guess what will happen next, although with so many of the likely next steps deferred to a yet-to-be-established Tertiary Education Commission, we won’t see any prompt action on the key recommendations. We might see some immediate, feel-good cost-of-living measures in the forthcoming Budget (carefully targeted to avoid a big price tag). The rest is on the never-never.

    Re the statement that the Accord “proposes undoing the previous government’s Job-Ready Graduates package” – that’s not how I read it. there is a recommendation to ‘reduce student contributions to address the most significant impacts of JRG’, another to ‘increase government funding for STEM courses to reduce the negative impacts of JRG’, and overall to ‘move toward a student contribution system based on projected potential lifetime earnings’ – the state of things before JRG. I may be pessimistic but those things do not add up to undoing JRG, merely ‘reducing its impacts’. It is difficult to get past the fact that those impacts were very clear from the outset, and the current government could have dealt with them quickly after coming to power. It chose not to.

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