Last November, Federal Minister for Education Jason Clare launched the Government’s Universities Accord process. The ambition is significant. The broad terms of reference include the future for research and equity, ensuring the sector meets the economy’s skills needs and securing financial sustainability.
The potential scope for reform is enormous, particularly when there is ambition to set the sector on a course for the next 20 years or more.
An expert panel led by Professor Mary O’Kane, the former vice-chancellor of the University of Adelaide, is currently seeking the views of the higher education sector and beyond, about what should form the basis of the interim report due in June.
Once the feedback has been digested, the Accord process will share and test policy proposals before completing the process by the end of the year. The timetable is ambitious.
While such reviews have grand ambitions, the likelihood of radical change is low. With so many other pressing issues facing government, reshaping the higher education system may not get a look in.
The debate on the purpose of the sector is, nevertheless, important. And there is scope for material change within the existing regulatory architecture, institutional governance and funding mechanisms, so good ideas – even if not adopted formally – may find their ways into practice.
Too often the contemporary narrative around the purposes of higher education focuses on short-term outcomes. The previous government’s mantra of ‘job readiness’, while well-intentioned, failed to celebrate the opportunities which come from graduates’ capabilities for careers, not just jobs.
A similar approach in research policy emphasises commercial outcomes from research activity. This can divert energy to later-stage technologies away from the sorts of fundamental inquiry that can deliver benefits over a much longer period.
Missing in the debate about the Universities Accord is the case for the in-built inefficiency in higher education.
There is a reason that universities exist with combined missions of education, research and engagement. At their best, these work together to deliver a broad range of positive outcomes for students, the economy and communities. Funding these institutions with some flexibility requires a level of trust which is not the typical framing of Australian public policy.
Universities need to support students’ ability to get jobs, and to be effective in those jobs. But they also need to enable students to think expansively and critically about what they might want to do, and where and how to do it.
Higher education would be much less effective if it were to be reduced to the training-package model of vocational education. Equally, researchers need the time and space (and colleagues and equipment) to explore ideas with creativity. Economic benefits will come, but in time.
The idea of a higher education system with in-built inefficiency isn’t just an indulgence. Creating a system that allows students and staff to explore ideas is grounded in the pursuit of competitive advantage.
In the global context, Australian higher education needs to focus more on being the destination for global talent. We want brilliant people building their careers and doing their best work in Australia.
We already have a great quality of life, good salaries by international standards and reputed universities. We don’t, however, have the culture and incentives to attract the very top academics. Artificial intelligence is great for many things, but it has not yet replaced researchers as creators of new knowledge, nor teachers as empathic communicators and sources of inspiration.
There is a tendency in policy reviews to think too narrowly about the mechanisms of change. For the Accord to succeed, it should set out principles by which the sector should function for the next generation.
Those principles should support achieving short-term positive impacts for students and other stakeholders, such as making it easier for universities to collaborate with businesses and industry associations. Those principles should also express broader ambitions for a world-leading system of higher education.
Australia has enormously successful universities. We would all be richer if the Universities Accord builds on the success in the system to allow educators and researchers freedom to pursue longer-term goals.
Some inefficiency may seem a hard concept to support, not least when government finances are tight. But for a successful higher education sector fit to serve the next generation, some thoughtful inefficiency is what we need.