Letter from Australia: Time for our very own Augar

In a week’s time, Australians will know whether they will be having a version of their very own Augar report – or not. That depends on which way the election goes.

Public sentiment at the moment seems to be on the side of the Australian Labor Party – a win for them means there will be the first full-scale review of post-secondary education in decades. Over the past year or so, pretty well every man and his dog with an interest in education policy has been publishing papers and “thought leadership” (goodness how I hate that phrase) on what the sector needs to look like and how the government of the day can push and pull policy levers to achieve it.

All have a list of common themes: lack of policy coherence between vocational and higher education sectors; the impact of automation on the world of work and careers; the increasing need for higher level skills; the importance of education in driving equitable outcomes for more disadvantaged members of society and so on and so forth.

The latest contribution is the higher education policy version of a Hollywood blockbuster: lots of razzle dazzle, a cast of mega stars and a supporting troupe of notables.

It’s from the Monash Commission – an enterprise dreamed up by vice-chancellor Margaret Gardner – to produce “independent, in-depth and comprehensive inquiries into priority issues facing our communities, business and government.”

The mega stars – the commissioners – included Nigel Thrift (obviously no need for an introduction here), Rory Hume, former provost of the University of California state system, Marie Persson, former chief executive of technical and further education for the state of New South Wales, Mette Schepers, partner at the Mercer advisory group, and Ian Chubb, a former chief-scientist and vice-chancellor.

In addition to the report, there are nine commissioned papers covering everything from demographics to governance and finances. Some of the additional commissioned work is very interesting. The piece by Leesa Wheelahan and Gavin Moodie on new approaches to post-compulsory education argues that the human capital argument for post-school education is at risk of losing its cogency. They say the human capital theory – that education increases productivity and therefore the economic value of individuals, groups and society – fails to take the full impact of education into the picture.

Instead they argue for the human capability approach, which holds that there are “manifest and manifold” benefits emanating from post-school education beyond getting a job, such as creativity, agency, health and social capital. It’s worth a read.

Modesty prevails

First up in the main report, there is a call for an independent statutory authority to oversee post-compulsory funding and strategy. In other words, they want to get short-termist, ideological, politics out of the picture and rationality, long-term thinking and even handedness in. Is it achievable? It would require a federal takeover of the vocational sector from the states, and different versions would require politicians to relinquish some level of control.

The second recommendation is for the introduction of a universal learning entitlement and lifetime learning account “to track, credit and verify learning.” They propose that all students are eligible for income-contingent loans over their lifetime for publicly subsidised courses.

The third and final recommendation is at odds with the rest of the report and the commissioned papers. It is about sustainable financing a university research, and its inclusion would suggest that some commissioners had more clout than others.

At the launch, Gardner said none of the recommendations were meant to be easy to implement – that these were difficult, complex issues that required difficult, complex answers. The question is whether the election will generate a political environment in which complexity might prevail.

Leave a Reply