When Labor was last in Opposition Kevin Rudd and Julia Gillard spoke passionately and, at least based on the 2007 election results, convincingly about their vision for an education revolution. A closer examination of what was to be the vanguard of the revolution revealed a much narrower agenda about skills enhancement, vocational and school education. Universities then as now rarely rated a mention in dispatches.
Yet it can be clearly demonstrated that Australia's economic future is very much tied to having a highly-skilled, technically-savvy and tertiary-educated workforce. Beyond the headlines of a multi-speed economy, skill shortages and declining productivity is an economy suffering government policy neglect and a failed education revolution.
So it is not surprising that the generals of the universities and their comrades in arms in the business community have sought opportunities to vent their frustration at what the sector perceives as policy inertia.
Several prominent academics captured this mood at a recent Committee for Economic Development of Australia (CEDA) conference on higher education and Australia's economic future. Issues that dominated presentations included the need for new funding models that allowed universities flexibility in their fees structures, quality assurance processes that reflected domestic and international qualifications recognition and admissions criteria, and addressing social inclusion by proposing genuine and workable solutions to lifting participation from those in marginalised status groups.
The reflections of participants were similar to many views expressed during CEDA's Economic and Political Outlook conferences earlier this year. Concerns about producing an appropriately qualified and skilled workforce to meet Australia's economic imperative over the coming decades did not dwell solely on such needs in terms of the much-hyped minerals boom. Rather, the requirements for skilled, tertiary-trained and professional workers, and the policies needed to encourage and achieve this, were equally seen as important.
Sadly, much of the attention has focussed on short-term solutions that embraced immigration needs, particularly with respect to guest workers categories. Whilst meeting demand immediately, opportunities for training and up-skilling a substantial underclass of welfare beneficiaries seems not to figure in the revolution.
Of perhaps even greater concern in what the higher education sector perceives as a poorly conceived policy response to the current problems confronting one of Australia's major export industries. International students and the vast industry that has grown around recruitment and research opportunities previously was ranked Australia's second highest export earner.
This significant position was achieved in part because Governments over several decades cut the very lifeblood of universities- their capital and research grants- and required them to find alternate sources of revenue. Currently, the education revolution has witnessed massive downturns in international student enrolments, government regulations that place impossible financial requirements on international students, administrative nightmares in terms of visa processing times, the growth of poor-quality institutions failing the most basic of quality standards and many universities slashing their international office workforces. This is revolutionary only in that is squeezing the sector of the very source of funding that the government had previously encouraged it to pursue.
So what are the priorities for government to tackle the woes of a sector in crisis- a sector that is and can continue to be the powerhouse of economic reform and sustainability for Australia? First, the government must seriously consider alternative funding models that provide a greater flexibility for universities in terms of fees, numbers of students and infrastructure requirements. The trade-off must be willingness for universities to actively tackle cost management and set priorities.
Second, academic programs must be linked to outcomes. Teaching, research and market demand must intersect, and universities must be given the incentive to respond positively to what business determines is required to sustain Australia's economic prosperity, to encourage innovation and to increase productivity.
Finally, the international student export market and its significance to Australia's trade outcome must be restored. This requires more than suggesting that the value of Australia's currency relative to the United States is the only cause for student numbers declining. The pleadings of the sector must be heeded. It is not about controlling immigration and applications for permanent residency. It is about setting standards for quality. It is about admission requirements being policed. It is about shonky agents and unregulated institutions being licensed . It is about an education revolution that values improving opportunities for foreign students. It is about securing talented graduates who will contribute to Australia's economic growth.
Let the real revolution begin.
Professor the Hon Stephen Martin | Chief Executive
29 April 2011