Australia’s higher education sector has a “once in a generation” opportunity to redefine itself in a disruptive era, a Melbourne forum has heard.
Kerri-Lee Krause, deputy vice-chancellor of Victoria’s La Trobe University, said two concurrent reviews – one looking at providers, the other at qualifications – were dovetailing at a pivotal time. Addressing the Tertiary Education Quality and Standards Agency conference, she implored the sector to get involved.
“We’re operating in a context where the fundamental question is, what is higher and enduring about higher education? These two reviews go to the heart of those questions, and thoughtful evidence-based debate is going to be key,” she said.
“Familiar concepts such as university, college, student, higher education experience, degree – those threshold concepts are being challenged. We need to take hold of this opportunity rather than sit back.”
One of the reviews examines higher education provider category standards. The reviewer, former Queensland University of Technology vice-chancellor Peter Coaldrake, said the current categories had not changed in 20 years. “But the higher education landscape has changed incredibly,” he told the conference.
Australia has five categories of university, most boasting few or no current examples, with “almost everybody concentrated in the public university space”. Meanwhile the bulk of the sector was concentrated in the sole non-university category of “higher education provider”.
“People tend to focus on [whether] the categories for universities are adequate,” Professor Coaldrake said. “That’s worth discussing, but it’s equally worth discussing whether a single category of 127 providers is adequate.”
The review is also expected to grapple with the contentious question of whether a teaching-only university category should be allowed. Currently, Australian universities are legislatively required to undertake research and offer research degrees.
Professor Coaldrake said a discussion paper underpinning the review would be released “imminently”. A paper is also being finalised for the other review – into the Australian Qualifications Framework – which is chaired by veteran policy expert Peter Noonan.
Among the issues it is tackling is how micro-credentials and generic skills should be treated in the qualifications hierarchy. Professor Krause said it would provide a forum for discussions about things such as “nano-offerings” and “the unbundling and rebundling of credentials”.
“Those are going to be part of the broader landscape,” she said. “What sort of provider category standards are going to be fit for purpose? What sorts of qualification framework do we need to be not only resilient but innovative in the future? We’re in for a very engaging 12 months.”
With submissions to both inquiries likely to be required by March, Australia’s tertiary education sector now has another couple of reviews on its plate.
On 28 October, Prime Minister Scott Morrison commissioned an independent review of the vocational education and training sector, to be headed by former New Zealand tertiary education minister Steven Joyce. The same day, opposition leader Bill Shorten promised that a Labor government would establish a “root-and-branch” inquiry into science and research.
The Innovative Research Universities said this was good news, but cautioned both sides of the political divide to think “big picture”.
“With Labor and the coalition both now thinking about the broad structures of post-school education, 2019 is shaping up as a great opportunity for whoever is in government to put in place a long-term plan for the sector,” said IRU executive director Conor King.