Free up teaching grants, Australian government told

Mission group calls for flexibility to use funding to support lifelong learning

February 9, 2020
Source: Alamy

Australia’s government has been urged to give effect to its lifelong learning rhetoric by allowing universities more discretion in how they use their teaching grants.

The Australian Technology Network (ATN) says that if the government reorganises funding so that it “follows the students”, universities will do a better job of meeting students’ and employers’ needs.

In a submission lodged ahead of the May federal budget, the ATN says that funding settings should not limit student choice and opportunity. “If universities can allocate their government funding in accordance with students’ priorities rather than…historical funding flows, then they will be fully able to respond to needs of the community.”

The proposal is partly aimed at encouraging flexibility in public subsidies for taught postgraduate courses, which have long been allocated in an ad hoc manner. Last November the government promised to give universities more choice in how they used their funding for postgraduate and sub-bachelor’s courses, in an apparent response to a 2018 discussion paper.

Education minister Dan Tehan said universities would be allowed to take money earmarked for diploma students and reallocate it to postgraduates, for instance. They would even be able to trade unused subsidies with other institutions.

The ATN supports such moves but wants “more democracy” in how teaching grants are applied, said executive director Luke Sheehy. He stressed the need to find funding for micro-credentials designed for mature-aged workers confronting occupational change, such as micro-masters and higher apprenticeships.

“People [who are] already in the workforce don’t want to do a three-year degree in order to reskill,” Mr Sheehy said.

He said the ATN would flesh out its proposal in the coming months. But the principle was that Canberra should avoid “picking the winners” in future reforms. Rather, student choice should govern financial support for higher education.

“Funding should always flow to the students because when the students have the choice, more innovative universities do better,” he said.

Mr Sheehy said the government had professed support for lifelong learning in December’s “Alice Springs Statement”, which was signed by the federal, state and territory education ministers, and in its endorsement of an October report on the Australian Qualifications Framework.

He said Australia should look to Singapore, Malaysia and South Korea, all of which had rolled out policies to support lifelong learning. Malaysia’s “Blueprint on Enculturation of Lifelong Learning” was released almost a decade ago, while Korean legislation requires the education ministry to produce updated lifelong education promotion plans every five years.

And when Singaporeans turn 25, their government grants them replenishable S$500 (£279) “SkillsFuture” credit accounts to pay for further education or training. Singapore employers also pay levies to bankroll workforce retraining.

New Zealand’s fees-free scheme also supports lifelong learning. It pays for mature-aged people to retrain as well as covering a year of tuition fees for new university students.

Mr Sheehy said the ATN planned to develop policies that were sustainable for the public purse. “The government has limited funds. It’s incumbent upon universities – particularly ours, which are close to industry – to work with our partners and come up with some solutions.

“It’s not just about people going into tertiary education. We shouldn’t forget people who are in the workforce. If you’re skilling workers to be more efficient, you’re unlocking productivity gains in the economy.”

john.ross@timeshighereducation.com

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