Australia’s business lobby has accused the country’s universities of ivory tower elitism and “immoral” self-interest, following a dispute over post-secondary education policy.
Jennifer Westacott, chief executive of the Business Council of Australia (BCA), chided universities over their reaction to Future-Proof, the council’s 2017 blueprint for a universal education system. Ms Westacott also criticised universities for expecting the business community to bankroll research funding and arrange student placements while steering clear of policy discussions.
“Business employs five out of six working Australians,” she said, in an address at the University of New South Wales. “That alone gives us a right to talk about this.
“If you think universities aren’t about educating the future workforce, I suggest you get out of professional education. Stop training all those doctors, architects, engineers, accountants, nurses and teachers.”
Future-Proof criticised policy settings that favoured higher education over training and shepherded practically oriented young people into degrees. The BCA said that this disadvantaged individuals while jeopardising Australia’s catastrophically underfunded vocational education sector and leaving the country’s economy ill-prepared for disruption.
The BCA’s solutions included a “lifelong skills account” offering equivalent subsidies for vocational and higher education. Representative group Universities Australia poured cold water on the proposals, saying vocational education’s funding woes should not be fixed by pilfering from higher education.
Ms Westacott condemned the university response. “It’s immoral to say we want to look after our sector, but we’re quite happy for another sector to fail in the process,” she said.
“Vocational education and higher education need each other. Business needs both of them working together, and you need a strong business community working with you. I don’t understand the hostility to what we proposed. I understand the anxiety; I understand all the detailed questions; but I do not understand the hostility.”
Ms Westacott said that some vice-chancellors had engaged constructively over the BCA proposals. She highlighted the universities of New South Wales, Sydney and Western Australia, Queensland’s Bond University and the University of Technology Sydney.
Former Universities Australia chair Barney Glover told the forum that there was “a surprising amount of agreement” between universities and business.
“At times you see an over-reaction from the sector,” said Professor Glover, vice-chancellor of Western Sydney University. “It’s important to see the business council willing to stand up and talk about education, and to do it in an evidence-based way.”
UNSW vice-chancellor Ian Jacobs said that funding questions were the wrong starting place for discussions about wholesale tertiary reform.
“We need to start this from a different point,” he said. “We need to ask the question: what does Australia need from its post-secondary education system to deliver the things we want for the nation?”
Ms Westacott said that universities’ largely dismissive reaction had not been shared by parents, workers or people in the street. She said that she had received invitations from radio stations “that none of us here probably listen to”, interviewed about her proposals by hosts with names like “Fitzy and Wippa”.
“People would ring in and say, that’s my kids you’re talking about. They went to university, it was the wrong thing for them to do, and now they’re lost.
“People really care about this. That’s why I was so disheartened when I saw the response by some in the university sector – that the business council had no right to venture into this debate.”
UA chief executive Catriona Jackson said universities agreed that the vocational education and training system needed repair. "We think the way to do that is not to weaken the policy foundations of universities, it’s to rebuild VET, and we are absolutely up for that conversation.”
Ms Jackson said UA had provided "detailed and respectful feedback" through the BCA’s consultation process. "We have sought to engage in just that spirit on the many issues that were not sufficiently understood in the BCA's proposals.”