Letter from Australia, the Monash Commission and independent reviews

There’s an almost palpable sense of frustration in Australia with the lack of vision for post-school education which, we all know, will be doing a lot of the heavy lifting to help the economy adjust to a technologically-disrupted future.

While the government spins giddily on its own axis, putting out bushfires and firestorms as they ignite in quick succession (unexpected firings and resignations at the Australian Broadcasting Commission was last week’s big news story), increasingly it is people from within the sector (and those with vested interests in the country producing sufficient knowledgeable, well-trained, adaptable and skilled workers) who have been developing some important policy work.

Commissioning the future

Last Wednesday saw an invitation-only seminar in Melbourne to consider reform for the sector. It was run at the behest of the Monash Commission, a grandly titled endeavour established by Monash University vice chancellor Margaret Gardner, to put some serious thinking behind possible future options.

About 60 expert insiders, sector leaders, and stakeholders gathered with the Commission’s very eminent collection of commissioners – which includes Nigel Thrift, former UK vice chancellor and now executive director of Schwarzman Scholars – in an attempt to identify gaps and issues in the design of post-compulsory education in Australia and to consider design scenarios for its future.

Gardner and her commissioners obviously have their eye very firmly on next year’s election and are looking to get a jump start on the policy process.

Defining the issues

In the lead up to the seminar, several papers were commissioned from a range of experts to inform the session. The big surprise here is the very strong focus on vocational education, which is unusual and unexpected given the HE sector’s usual displays of blatant self-interest.

All eight papers are considered and thoughtful and, almost without exception, call for a major overhaul of the post-secondary (or post-18) sector. It’s almost as if the Monash Commission is hoping to conjure up a clone of Philip Augur to run a similar review to that currently being undertaken in the UK.

The HE sector has benefited enormously under the dominant policy settings of the past decade (which have been mostly unpicked and diluted with its centrepiece – the demand-driven system – now on pause until at least 2020). This has all come at the expense of the vocational sector, which has also been bashed around by a raft of ill-conceived (and failed) pro-marketision policies, devastating funding cuts and other shameful episodes of policy missteps.

It’s not just the HE sector calling for an overhaul. A month ago the Business Council of Australia released an impassioned plea for widespread reform of the post-secondary education and skills sector. And even though the report has no authority (the BCA is a lobby group, not a government department), it still managed to attract 26 submissions to inform its thinking.

KPMG, Deloitte and many others have also made valuable and considered contributions to the debate. And all have one thing in common: calls for a shake-up of the entire post-secondary landscape before it’s too late.

As one of the Monash Commission’s commissioned papers notes, under current policy settings and based on trends over the past two years, participation rates across the tertiary education sphere are likely to drop dramatically between 2018-30 because of the sharp decline in vocational enrolments.

That is, while HE enrolments have increased dramatically in the past decade (but plateaued in more recent years), the retreat from vocational education has been so prolific that tertiary enrolments as a proportion could decline. Other data has revealed that women who undertake vocational education are no better off financially as a result of their studies than those who just finish school. Some might even be worse off.

As VET authorityPeter Noonon predicts, at this rate VET “would become essentially a residual sector by the end of the next decade”. If it’s not already. There are also stark warnings here for the UK vocational sector.

What does the future look like?

That depends on who’s doing the thinking. But one paper by Michael Mintrom from Monash University and Andrew Gunn from the University of Leeds, adds to growing calls for an independent commission to oversee HE funding and policy.

The reasons are obvious: short-termism, ongoing funding cuts, a colourful carousel of ministers and prime ministers with varying degrees of commitment and intellectual grasp of the portfolio.

Indeed, if one looks back to the last major implemented review of HE – the Bradley review in 2008 – of the 46 recommendations about half were either fully or partially implemented and only a handful are still in force today (mainly to do with regulation and student income support).

Mintrom and Gunn make the point that a tertiary education commission independent of government has worked in the past (although they concede it just might have become a bit too independent of government) and there is no reason why it can’t work again. It’s an argument that any government of the day will be unlikely to have any truck with, but with chief advocate Glyn Davis (former Melbourne University vice chancellor) on the hustings for a commission in recent years, there is always a chance he will find a way to break through.

Is there more?

To quote Noonan: “What is required is a comprehensive, sustainable and long-term funding framework for VET and higher education in Australia to meet the needs of the country’s growing population and to support increased participation in its workforce.”

And let’s add to that the unpredictable and unknowable impacts of automation and technology on the workforce. It’s plain to see that large-scale funding and reform which has the common good (and not sector-specific and institutional interests) at heart is now an issue of utmost importance.

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