Wednesday, February 22, 2023

Discussion Paper on The Future of Australian Universites

The Australian Universities Accord Panel, chaired by Professor Mary O’Kane, has released a 44 page Discussion Paper. I submitted Some Thoughts on the Future of Australian Higher Education in December.

There are a series of questions in the paper. Here is my attempt to answer some. An underlying these in these, I realised later, was to make Uni more like TAFE, with shorter, nested, competency based, work integrated courses, delivered by people trained to teach:

Role of higher education:

  1. "How should an Accord be structured and focused to meet the challenges facing Australia’s higher education system? What is needed to overcome limitations in the current approach to Australian higher education?
  2. How can the diverse missions of Australian higher education providers be supported, taking into account their different operating contexts and communities they serve (for example regional universities)?
  3. What should the long-term target/s be for Australia’s higher education attainment by 2030 and 2040, and how should these be set and adjusted over time?"

There is enough in just these three questions to keep academia busy for decades. I suggest the diverse mission of Australian higher education can be supported by allowing for a diversity of institutions. In particular vocational education needs to be strengthened, to become the first option for post-school education, not just something you do if you can't get into a  university. A reasonable aim would be to have 80% of the 25-34 year old population with at least an AQF Level 4 Qualification (Certificate IV). This would be more useful goal than aiming for a bachelor's degree for the majority of the population.

Challenges and opportunities for the higher education system

4. "Looking from now to 2030 and 2040, what major national challenges and opportunities should Australian higher education be focused on meeting?

5 How do the current structures of institutions, regulation and funding in higher education help or hinder Australia’s ability to meet these challenges? What needs to change?

6 What are the best ways to achieve and sustain future growth in Australian higher education, given the changing needs of the population and the current pressures on public funding?

7 How should the mix of providers evolve, considering the size and location of existing institutions and the future needs of communities?"

The challenge I suggested Australian universities face in 2016 was how to provide quality education online. I warned that international students could be prevented from getting to Australian campuses, due to a regional crisis. Unfortunately universities failed to heed this warning, and were largely unprepared when COVID-19 struck.

However, I also warned of a longer term challenge with competition for international and domestic students from offshore, and online universities. Australian universities are also failing to meet this challenge, assuming that with COVID-19 receding, they can scale back ad-hoc online learning. As a result, international and domestic studnts will choose to study elsewhere.

Challenges and opportunities for the higher education system

9 "How should Australia ensure enough students are studying courses that align with the changing needs of the economy and society?

10 What role should higher education play in helping to develop high quality general learning capabilities across all age groups and industries? 

11 How should Australia boost demand from people to study in the higher education system? 

12 How should an adequate supply of CSPs be sustained and funded, as population and demand increase?"

Australian governments can fund vocational education programs in areas of demand. Some of those students can then go on to university study. This will ensure that there are incentives for study in particular fields, without burdening the taxpayer with the entire cost.

Universities can provide work integrated, competency based, nested programs, which allow new and mature students to gain the skills they need quickly. A student should be able to undertake a microcredential which takes only a few weeks study, and have that count towards a certificate, diploma, and degree.

Collaboration with industry

13 "How could an Accord support cooperation between providers, accreditation bodies, government and industry to ensure graduates have relevant skills for the workforce?

14 How should placement arrangements and work-integrated learning (WIL) in higher education change in the decades ahead?"

Professional associations have a key role in setting the standards for the professions. 

Unpaid internships should be outlawed through state and federal legislation. Those industries willing to pay for trainees will get staff. Those companies unwilling to invest in their future will not have a future.

Lifelong Learning

15 "What changes are needed to grow a culture of lifelong learning in Australia?

16 What practical barriers are inhibiting lifelong learning, and how can they be fixed?"

A major impediment to life long learning is the assumption that school leavers attend a campus full time for three years to obtain a degree for a first job. Shorter qualifications, part time, and mature students are therefore seen as an afterthought by universities. This can be changed by requiring universities to offer online, nested, qualifications which suit mature working students. 

Connection between the vocational education and training and higher education systems

17 "How should better alignment and connection across Australia’s tertiary education system be achieved?

18 What role should reform of the AQF play in creating this alignment?

19 What would a more effective and collaborative national governance approach to tertiary education look like?

20 How can pathways between VET and higher education be improved, and how can students be helped to navigate these pathways? 

21 How can current examples of successful linkages between VET and higher education be integrated across the tertiary education system? 

22 What role do tertiary entrance and admissions systems play in matching learners to pathways and supporting a sustained increase in participation and tertiary success?"

Better alignment can be achieved by directing more of the funding to the vocational sector, so it becomes the first choice for students leaving school. That will then give the vocational sector the power to negotiate alignment with universities, as most university entrants will be coming from the vocational sector, and that sector will be able to influence which university they select.

The tertiary entrance and admissions systems are poor at matching learners to pathways, and should be scrapped.

Solving Big Challenges

23 "How should an Accord help Australia increase collaboration between industry, government and universities to solve big challenges?

24 What reforms will enable Australian research institutions to achieve excellence, scale and impact in particular fields?

25 How should Australia leverage its research capacity overall and use it more effectively to develop new capabilities and solve wicked problems?

26 How can Australia stimulate greater industry investment in research and more effective collaboration?"

Australian government can consult the education sector, as well as others, when setting national priorities.  They can then allocate funding for universities in accordance with those priorities.

Compulsory industry training for research students will help increase impact. There is little point in having excellent research if the researchers do not see it as part of their job, and do not have the skills, to put that research into practice.

Research Workforce

27 "How can we improve research training in Australia including improving pathways for researchers to gain experience and develop high-impact careers in government and industry?"

The Australian Government can improve pathways by transferring funding from research doctorates to professional doctorates. Professional doctorates provide more rounded, useful graduates for government and industry.

Academic Preparadness

28 "What is needed to increase the number of people from under-represented groups applying to and prepared for higher education, both from school and from other pathways?

29 What changes in provider practices and offerings are necessary to ensure all potential students can succeed in their chosen area of study?"

Open universities have for decades shown how to provide for under-represented groups, by offering part time, online studies, recognising prior experience as being as valuable as formal study.

Addressing barriers to access

30 "How can governments, institutions and employers assist students, widen opportunities and remove barriers to higher education?

31 How can the costs of participation, including living expenses, be most effectively alleviated?"

Governments can increase funding for vocational education, to make it the default pathway to university. Government can require universities to make online, part time, work integrated learning the default option.

Training can be provided to university program and course designers to show them how to design out the privileged assumptions built into current university programs. Government can require universities to built in study skills courses to programs, rather than have these an optional extra for disadvantaged students.

System-wide approaches to increasing access and equity

32 "How can best practice learning and teaching for students from under-represented groups be embedded across the higher education system, including the use of remote learning?

33 What changes to funding and regulatory settings would enable providers to better support students from under-represented groups in higher education?"

Governments, and professional accreditation bodies, can make teaching qualifications for university teaching staff mandatory. Staff will then have the skills needed to design out the discrimination currently built into courses, due to lack of competence.


34 "How should the contribution of higher education providers to community engagement be encouraged and promoted?

35 Where providers make a distinctive contribution to national objectives through community, location-based or specialised economic development, how should this contribution be identified and invested in?"

Community engagement can be fostered by building on social enterprise programs run through organisations such as the Canberra Innovation Network. Academics and their students, need specific training in how to identify community needs, and how to talk to the community. This can be built into professional curricular, as is done in the ANU School of Computing's Techlauncher Program.

Regulation and governance

36 "What regulatory and governance reforms would enable the higher education sector to better meet contemporary demands?

37 How could a more coherent and dynamic national governance system for higher education be achieved?"

One of the strengths of the Australian education system is the mix of federal state and non-government. The temptation to simplify, and centralise, should be resisted.

Academic workforce

38 "How can the Accord support higher education providers to adopt sector-leading employment practices?"

The Accord can recommend legislation making wage theft a crime, with jail terms for the Vice Chancellors where institutions deliberately, and systematically, steal money from their staff.

The problem of insecure employment can be addressed by ensuring that doctoral students are trained for jobs which exist in government, or industry, and not given the false impression they have a well paid secure future in academia. With the ability to get a job elsewhere, academic staff will be much harder for universities systematically to exploit.

Quality experience for students

39 "What reforms are needed to ensure that all students have a quality student experience?

40 What changes are needed to ensure all students are physically and culturally safe while studying?"

Having students first undertake vocational education, and paid employment, will ensure more maturity on entry to university. Compulsory courses on study skills can incorporate familiarly with what students can expect, and how to complain when they don't get it. Compulsory group work for new students can incorporate cultural sensitivity training.

Compulsory training for teachers in how to teach can incorporate cultural sensitivity training.

Research quality

41 "How should research quality be prioritised and supported most effectively over the next decade?"

The Australian Government can fund the development of an international university ranking scheme which prioritises education quality over research quantity. This will correct the current imbalance where universities strive to maximise the production of research papers, at the expense of quality, to achieve a high ranking, and thus attract students. 

Academic integrity

42 "What settings are needed to ensure academic integrity, and how can new technologies and innovative assessment practices be leveraged to improve academic integrity?"

Academics can be trained in how to design courses which incorporate authentic work integrated assessment, rather than essays and exams. This will be more effective than continuing the arms race between AI to create essays, and AI to detect them.

International Education

43 "How should the current recovery in international education be managed to increase the resilience and sustainability of Australia’s higher education system, including through diversification of student enrolments from source countries?

44 How can the benefits of international education be shared broadly across the system, including in regional areas, and what level of reporting should there be?"

The resilience of Australian Higher education can be increased by providing a quality online option. A condition of funding of Australian universities should be cooperation, not competition, with international marketing. Existing cultural contacts with Vietnam, Indonesia, and the region, should be exploited.

The Australian Government should scrap the New Colombo Plan, and instead fund a virtual Colombo program, which subsidises students from developing nations to study online alongside Australian students.  

Investment and affordability

45 "How should the contribution of different institutions and providers to key national objectives specific to their location, specialist expertise or community focus be appropriately financed?

Q46 How can infrastructure development for higher education be financed, especially in regional and outer urban locations?"

Government funding of regional campuses should be conditional on those campuses being shared, between institutions, and with the local community.

Commonwealth funding for higher education research and teaching and learning

47 "What structure of Commonwealth funding is needed for the higher education sector for the system to be sustainable over the next two decades?"

Funding for teaching and learning should continue to be limited to accredited institutions, public and private. Rather than open degree awarding to a larger range of institutions, students should be encouraged to obtain more vocationally relevant sub-degree qualifications. The current degree awarding institutions can then be incentivised to grant credit to a degree for these.

Student contributions and the Higher Education Loan Program

48 "What principles should underpin the setting of student contributions and Higher Education Loan Program arrangements?

Government should fully fund the equivalent of one Certificate IV for each Australian citizen, with subsidies reducing as the student completes each higher level of study.

Job-ready Graduates (JRG) package

49 "Which aspects of the JRG package should be altered, and which should be retained?"

Undergraduate Certificates should be retained as part of nested degree programs. However, the option of the student undertaking this in the vocational sector should be encouraged.

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