Labor's promised universities accord could be a turning point for higher education in Australia

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Australian higher education could arrive at a turning point in the next three years. Not because the incoming Albanese government is likely to increase funding greatly. And not because it has ambitious plans to change higher education.

The reason is likely to be the universities accord promised by Labor. The turning point is likely to emerge from rebuilding shared understandings of how to manage the pressures that built up over the past decade and how to negotiate a transition to a different higher education sector over the next decade.

These pressures have fractured a sense of a common purpose within the sector and among its interest groups.

Read more: 3 big issues in higher education demand the new government's attention

Pressures for a new settlement

Pressures for a new settlement in higher education arise not just from the replacement of a government widely perceived within the sector as being unsympathetic to it, though that didn’t help. The new government’s appointment of former University of Melbourne vice-chancellor Glyn Davis to head the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet has been welcomed as a positive sign.

We have seen relations fracture along three lines:

  • between university staff and many of their managements that they regard as exploitative

  • between students and universities that they see as driven to maximise “profits”

  • between communities and government and universities that they consider to be self-serving.

Read more: 'Universities are not corporations': 600 Australian academics call for change to uni governance structures

The sources of these tensions are substantial long-term and widespread changes in the nature of higher education, its relations with work, its globalisation, the transforming role of research, broader economic and social changes, and their management by universities and governments.

Accords past and imminent

As Labor’s shadow education minister, Tanya Plibersek foreshadowed the universities accord in August 2021. She said:

“The accord would be a partnership between universities and staff, unions and business, students and parents, and, ideally, Labor and Liberal, that lays out what we expect from our universities. […]”

“The aim of an accord would be to build consensus on key policy questions and national priorities in a sober, evidence-based way, without so much of the political cut and thrust. Building that consensus should help university reform stick. […]”

“The accord process would be led by the minister with advice from a small group of eminent Australians from across the political spectrum. No aspect of the higher education system will be out of bounds.”

Labor leader Anthony Albanese stressed this change in approach in his election victory speech. He promised to “seek our common purpose and promote unity”, “find that common ground” and “work in common interests with business and unions”.

Albanese has often said he wants to emulate the consensus style of governing of Bob Hawke, the Labor prime minister from 1983 to 1991.

The promise of a universities accord consciously invokes the Prices and Incomes Accord, the series of agreements negotiated by the Hawke government from 1983 to 1991. Those accords traded off pay rises for increases in the “social wage” such as Medicare, pensions and unemployment benefits and, eventually, superannuation.

Read more: Australian politics explainer: the Prices and Incomes Accord

Plibersek didn’t seem to contemplate a grand bargain in higher education, but said last August a Labor government would want the accord to address “big questions”.

“There are big questions that need to be answered about how higher education is structured and funded – so that it can keep offering affordable, high-quality teaching and produce world-class research, and so that knowledge translates to prosperity and jobs. We must look at the whole system rather than tinkering around the edges if we want to make sure we have the educated workforce necessary to drive economic growth. Australia’s future prosperity depends on it.”

Participation is still growing

These questions emerge as Australia absorbs its transition over the past half century from elite higher education (less than 16% participation) to mass participation (16%-50%).

Australia and other wealthy countries are now moving towards universal access to higher education (more than 50% participation). The UK government, for example, removed controls on student numbers in England from 2015. Australia lifted caps on funded enrolments from 2012 to 2017.

No government in Australia is likely to reinstate demand-driven funded student places soon. However, enrolments are likely to expand to accommodate growing numbers of school leavers and increased social, occupational and economic aspirations to undertake higher education.

Public universities currently offer 82% of higher education, TAFE and other vocational colleges 10%, non-university higher education institutions 6% and private universities 2%. Whether this is the ideal balance will presumably be one of the “big questions” for the accord to consider.

Read more: Who'll teach all the students promised extra TAFE places? 4 steps to end staff shortages

Education and work

The expansion of higher education has been fuelled by human capital theory, the idea that education increases productivity and, in turn, incomes. Nonetheless, concerns persist that Australia has too many graduates who are not well matched to their jobs and still less to future employers’ needs.

This is due in part to employers’ substantial cuts in their investment in their employees’ induction and training since the 1990s in Australia, Canada, the UK and the USA.

The gaps in the mythical conveyor belt from education to work have been one cause of students’ disenchantment, leading to the insistence by them, employers and governments that universities produce “job-ready graduates”.

Further narrowing the supply of graduates to meet predicted labour force needs does not improve the match between education and work. Apart from anything else, there’s the changing demand and structuring of jobs in the labour market to consider. But it would be good to develop a more sophisticated understanding and management of the relations between higher education and work.

Read more: Pandemic widens gap between government and Australians' view of education

Research and innovation

Universities have also benefited from the idea of a linear relation between research, experimental development, innovation and economic development. And, again, it has narrowed and distorted university research’s priorities, funding and management. The relations between research and innovation are far more complex and uncertain than the linear model assumes.

And just as some argue that Australia relies too heavily on its comprehensive teaching and research universities for higher education participation, so it relies too heavily on these universities for applied research and development.

Governments and others should stop pressuring universities to fill gaps in innovation. Australia already has many of the elements of a sophisticated innovation ecosystem. They need more careful tending and stronger support.

The rise of international education

Australian universities were at first reluctant to expand international enrolments when they were allowed and then required to charge these students full fees, another Hawke government decision. However, these enrolments had started to increase strongly by the time Labor lost office in 1996.

Now, of course, international education is such a success that it is deeply enmeshed in and supports universities’ core activities, especially research.

Universities, their staff and their students managed shocks magnificently during the pandemic. The dependence on international students doesn’t make universities as vulnerable as some feared before COVID, but it is still a serious weakness.

How the other half thinks

Australia performs relatively well in higher education equity research, policy and implementation. There is also a relatively good understanding of how economic, social and educational inequalities shape inequality in higher education, and how higher education may ameliorate it.

Like many other countries, Australia builds higher education policy on redressing the disadvantages of under-represented groups. But perhaps a different type of inequity remains unaddressed. Brexit and Trumpism have shown around 30% of adults are deeply alienated from the pursuit of rational inquiry from evidence.

A similarly sizeable body of Australians seems to be alienated from higher education and its values.

Many unionists and employers constructed competency-based training from the 1990s to “teacher proof” vocational education. It may be worth considering how higher education may serve those who are alienated or at least disengaged from further education.

And what about funding?

HECS income-contingent loans, an Australian policy innovation introduced by the Hawke government, have partly financed the transitions from elite to mass higher education and towards universal access. While universities are as keen for increased funding as governments are to cut it, there is no crisis in Australian higher education financing.

Read more: Universities had record job losses, but not as many as feared – and the worst may be over

But tensions about financing will increase as participation increases. A major advance may be more structural than financial, by having most increases in higher education enrolments in TAFE institutes. These already offer high-quality baccalaureates and have campuses across the country.

Decision-making and employment structures

The transition to mass higher education was governed by the managerialism and later the metricisation or datafication of higher education so despised by academics.

Clearly, there is scope for improving government direction and oversight of higher education, and for improving universities’ own decision-making. There are legitimately different views on the balance between collegial and managerial governance of universities. However, examples of universities’ wage theft and exploitative employment practices reflect problems with many universities’ management.

Australian universities have a very high reliance on casual employment, even more so than in many other areas of the economy. Indeed, the growth of insecure alongside secure employment in universities and colleges reflects a dualisation of employment protections in many OECD countries, as part of a general liberalisation of employment regulation.

This suggests the need for more comprehensive protections against insecure employment throughout the economy.

Read more: Here's what the government and universities can do about the crisis of insecure academic work

An early test of government

Many other substantial issues confront Australian higher education. It is hard to see the accord addressing all of these.

An early indication of the new minister and government’s governing style will be the extent to which the most important issues to be addressed are identified just within government, in private consultations with privileged “stakeholders”, or openly with students, staff and the public.

This article is republished from The Conversation is the world's leading publisher of research-based news and analysis. A unique collaboration between academics and journalists. It was written by: Gavin Moodie, University of Toronto.

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Gavin Moodie has received various research grants from bodies funded by the Australian and state governments, and was employed by Australian universities for 35 years. He is currently employed by the University of Toronto and is a co investigator on a grant funded by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada.

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