Australia’s top education minds have backed a merger of the country’s university and vocational funding systems, and also the creation of an assessment exercise similar to the UK’s teaching excellence framework.
The 10-point plan for post-school education, based on interviews with a brains trust of 54 vice-chancellors, regulators, bureaucrats and educationalists, says that, in a world that automation and artificial intelligence will “radically reshape”, tertiary providers must be regulated enough to “ensure quality, protect students and enhance our national reputation, but otherwise freed up to develop more distinctive institutional missions”.
The underpinning recommendation of Reimagining Tertiary Education: From Binary System to Ecosystem, written by Stephen Parker, Andrew Dempster and Mark Warburton, is that the federal government should stage a takeover of vocational education from the states and territories and assume primary responsibility for a unified tertiary education funding system. This echoes calls from sector leaders including policy veteran Peter Noonan and University of Melbourne vice-chancellor Glyn Davis.
Lead author Professor Parker, a KPMG Australia partner and former University of Canberra vice-chancellor, said that the move was inevitable. “It’s a question of when we are going to grasp the nettle.
“There are major shocks coming our way, and we need a tertiary system that can equip people for it. We can’t keep squabbling around federal-state funding and artificial boundaries when our competitor countries are not tied up in that kind of thing.”
The proposals include restoring Australia’s demand-driven university system and extending federal funding and income-contingent tuition loans to all levels of tertiary education – costing about A$1.7 billion (£960 million) a year in extra government spending.
The report also advocates deregulatory moves such as decluttering the Australian Qualifications Framework, explicitly separating funding for research and teaching, jettisoning Australia’s highly prescriptive provider classification system and eliminating funding distinctions between public and private institutions.
But Professor Parker stressed that providers would need to be “fit and proper, offering high-quality courses and committed to education. There’s a way to go before all of the tertiary sector would meet those requirements. In some ways, there needs to be tighter regulation.”
Hence the report presses for a new framework to parallel Australia’s research assessment exercise and put teaching and research on level pegging.
Some UK commentators have condemned the TEF as an expensive white elephant that produces unreliable and largely overlooked data and duplicates available metrics. Professor Parker said that, although no major exercise had universal support, many stood the test of time.
“Teaching needs to be rewarded on par with research, and it just isn’t at the moment,” he said, adding that the distribution of public money without any attempt to assess quality was “yesterday’s idea”.
Professor Parker said that it was hard to predict how the report would be received by a spending-averse government and an opposition committed to staging its own tertiary education review. “If the ideas behind this surface in other forms of recommendations, I’m happy with that.
“There’s something in there for everyone to like, and something for everyone to object to – that’s how you stimulate a healthy debate.”