We all wish higher education (well, education in general) was featured as a central theme in the 2022 federal election campaign for the major parties.

This would have given many a sense of comfort that higher education matters in the minds and hearts of politicians and society at large.

The previous two years have been particularly challenging for institutions, students, staff, and the community in general. Even though we all feel positive that the borders have reopened, allowing for the return of international students onshore, there is still a long way to go before the worst period of uncertainty is behind us.

Moments of reckoning

There are likely to be a few moments of reckoning ahead for Australian universities. Obviously, the first one happens this weekend when we find out which party will govern Australia over the next three years and the kind of overall policy framework.

The next moment is likely to be when the mid-year budget forecast is released which will point towards priorities in next year’s budget. Also, it is worth remembering that in December 2017 the Turnbull government announced $2.1 billion in cuts to universities as the government sought to unwind the demand-driven system.

Sooner or later the federal government will seek to address the persistence of large budget deficits. Also, there are some areas where we are likely to see increased spending in years ahead, such as defense and health. Because of this, the likelihood of increased spending on higher education appears remote. It is more likely that there will be rearrangements in the way funding is allocated to institutions. Keep in mind that independent higher education providers are also seeking to access Commonwealth funding.

Undoubtedly, in due course we will be debating a new higher education policy to “steer the course” over the next few decades. We have not had a significant policy reform of the same magnitude as the Dawkins reforms of the 1980s.

Furthermore, the pandemic forced universities to rapidly embrace new models of teaching, and these hybrid models of teaching and learning are here to stay. A transformation is also underway in the ways we work. Office work and in-person collaboration replaced with video conferencing, on-line communications tools and a variety of approaches to stay connected. This means universities will need to increase spending on ICT as well as ensuring that there is increased support for students and staff.

In the short term, we can expect that a new (or re-elected) government will want universities to improve on their measures of student satisfaction and graduate outcomes. In return, there is likely to be a review of the regulatory regime and reporting requirements as well as a review into the effectiveness of the Job-Ready Graduates programme.

We can also expect that government will ask universities to have an increased focus on improving productivity. At the same time universities will be asked to continue to focus on ways they are addressing societal challenges. One of those challenges is reducing inequalities by providing an education to disadvantaged Australians, but also developing new ideas and new products to bolster Australia’s ability to innovate and remain competitive internationally.

Regaining public trust

During this election period, I am uncertain to what extent an increased focus on higher education would have ben positive. This is because universities have been portrayed in the media as being big public entities (e.g., ten out of 37 public universities earned more than $1 billion in 2020); vice-chancellors and senior executives earn salaries which are more in line with private enterprise than public entities and there is the ongoing issue of back pay for casuals. There have also been stories that students are not feeling safe on campus and don’t know where to go for help.

Trust or confidence in social institutions has been in decline over many years, and Australian universities have not been immune from this global trend. There are many who think that universities are not equipping students with the necessary skills or abilities to actively participate in the country’s economy and therefore failing in their mission (e.g., see 2019 report from ANU’s Centre for Social Research & Methods).

In the absence of a public debate on higher education during the election, we can use this time to reflect on the ways in which we can all be agents of change and bolster confidence in public universities.

University leaders and senior academics can use the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) as a framework to showcase how they are working towards achieving peace and prosperity for people and the planet and reducing inequality, while also tackling climate change and preserving oceans and forests now and into the future.

At the same time, universities can use the SDG framework to take an inwards look, allowing them to address weaknesses and ensure that they continue to improve and act as an agent of change. e.g., one of the targets in SDG Eight is about achieving equal pay for work of equal value.

Two SDGs in particular invite universities to take an inward and outward look at how effective they are in responding to the need for change. Universities need to be more explicit about how their partnerships (SDG 17) are progressing and advancing the sustainable development agenda. We also need to ensure our universities form meaningful partnerships with civil society, market forces and the state for sustainable development and are inclusive from those regions which most need these partnerships.

Universities have direct involvement and work with NGOs, governments and industry. This means we need our universities to be strong enough to maintain their ethical advocacy efforts for improved governance, transparency and accountability at all levels of society (SDG 16).

There is significant amount of work that universities do which impacts on society, through stewardship and outreach initiatives, leading education and research. However, often enough we fail to articulate and use the means and forms which can be understood by the overall population.

Angel Calderon is principal advisor, planning and research at RMIT



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