What might a Labour government do for universities? Ask Australia

Policy expert Down Under says widespread higher education review has brought its benefits but universities should not expect an easy ride

July 3, 2024
A young child on a beach wearing two Australia flags on his head waves another Australia flag
Source: iStock/Andrey Moisseyev

Labor taking power in Australia has led to a reset in the relationship with universities and more of a consensus on the priorities for the sector, but institutions have not had everything their own way – particularly regarding international students, according to a policy expert based Down Under.

With a centre-left government widely being tipped to take over in the UK, Paul Harris, executive director of Australia’s Innovative Research Universities network, told an event at UCL that his country’s own Labor Party had had a mixed record in the eyes of the sector in the two years it had been in power.

The party, led by Anthony Albanese, won power from the Liberal/National Coalition in 2022 after a long period in which universities faced what was widely regarded as hostile policy environment, with ministers intervening on research funding decisions and preventing institutions from accessing emergency Covid funding.

If the UK Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer similarly defeats Rishi Sunak’s Conservative Party on 4 July, some have urged him to follow his Australian counterparts, particularly with regard to their widespread review of the sector, known as the Australian Universities Accord.

THE podcast: what does the UK election mean for higher education?

The exercise, which delivered its final report in February, had been useful in bringing people together to discuss the future of the university system, Mr Harris said, but he added that policymakers should be wary of putting too much faith in one review.

“A big review can be useful in surfacing all the issues and all the interdependence and building consensus around priorities, but I think we’ve learned it can’t do everything,” Mr Harris told the event.

The accord had not dealt with international education, he said, which was now subject to a heated discussion in parliament, with quick-fix solutions such as raising visa fees and putting a cap on overseas enrolments being pushed through with little consultation.

And although the accord had made a series of recommendations about research policy and funding, the government had done little so far in this area, added Mr Harris, recently announcing it would hold another review of all government investment in research and development.

“We’ve done a huge review and the outcome is we are going to have another huge review,” said Mr Harris. “That won’t be finished until after the next election; it will drag on for the next 18 months or so.”

Many in the UK sector hope a Labour win will signal a change in approach to international students after the Conservatives flirted with scrapping the graduate visa at the end of their term in office.

Labor in Australia, however, has gone further than this with its proposed cap on international students, seen as necessary due to concerns about housing shortages and stretched public services.

Mr Harris said it was still not clear where the policy would end up and he was hoping the bill that was in the parliament would be “comprehensively rewritten over the next week or two”.

“But one thing is clear,” he said, “I think we are going to have a very different system for managing international education than the free-market model we’ve had for the last 20 or 30 years.”

Overall, he said, the change in government had seen a reset in the relationship between government and universities and he welcomed moves such as the creation of an independent tertiary education commission, which he said would allow for long-term planning for the university system.

But the sector in Australia still faced several unanswered questions, said Mr Harris, including how much autonomy universities were willing to trade in return for a more balanced and coherent system and, more fundamentally, who would pay for the expansion of the sector: students or government.


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