Australian accord a ‘great model’ for Labour and UK universities

Collaboration between sector and government key to success of major reviews, Hepi webinar hears

June 5, 2024
Source: iStock/ Inside Creative House

The collaborative nature of Australia’s recent higher education reforms and its embrace of massification provide a “great model” for the UK sector to copy, according to experts.

Many of the 47 recommendations of the Universities Accord final report, which took more than a year to conduct after it was commissioned by an incoming Labour government, were accepted in the recent budget.

A new left-wing government entering at a time of fiscal challenge and a difficult political climate for higher education are potential similarities that the UK sector shares, according to Andy Westwood, professor of government practice at the University of Manchester.

Professor Westwood, a former special adviser to Labour universities ministers, said that if the party returned to government in the UK it would want to be active, to “pull levers”, and think about higher education’s future role.

“Even though the English sector has not been short of reviews in recent years, many of them have been very technical,” he told a webinar hosted by the Higher Education Policy Institute.

“What we’ve been missing is a really big conversation about what it’s for. The accord took that on boldly, on the front foot and set that out.”

Libby Hackett, chief executive of the Sydney-based James Martin Institute for Public Policy, said the very nature of the accord – an agreement between the government and universities – helped it have a unifying message.

“Right from the get-go, the government set this out as a collaborative model, as an engagement of partnership, it was positive and constructive in tone,” said Ms Hackett, former chief executive of the UK’s University Alliance mission group.

“It very much felt like a partnership and a collaborative approach with the sector leaning in.”

The accord proposed a target for 80 per cent of working-age Australians to have tertiary qualifications by 2050.

Ms Hackett said the framework of the accord allowed it to “smash through the rhetoric” around expanding higher education with a positive, evidence-based message that was linked to growth and equity.

“What the accord did was to make it a shared responsibility of government and universities to aim towards these equity targets,” she said.

“This shared mission approach came together right from the start.”

Another proposal is for a tertiary education commission, which would provide “oversight, coordination and expert advice” to the higher education sector.

Duncan Ivison, the former University of Sydney deputy-vice chancellor who will join the University of Manchester as vice-chancellor later this year, said the accord showed that the massification of higher education was a “good thing and a just thing to do”.

“That the accord has provided a framework for a just way to embrace the massification of higher education is a really powerful framework for us to think about in the UK,” Professor Ivison said.

Australian sector policy has been dominated by culture wars, a revolving door of ministers and bad policy, according to Professor Ivison, but the collaborative nature of the Australian process should act as a “great model” for the UK.

“The fact that we had a new government committed to taking a systematic review of the higher education system and doing it in a very partnership way was a pretty powerful change in both the tone and the way in which higher education policy was being developed,” he said.

“That’s one really important and positive message for UK higher education to think about.”

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