Presenting a NCSEHE seminar last week, I set myself the challenge of making HE sense of the current frenzy of education-system reviews. Reviews on Performance Based Funding (and PBF’s design for 2020), the reallocation of CSPs for enabling, sub-degree and postgraduate places, the Provider Category Standards and the Australian Qualifications Framework (AQF) don’t tell the whole HE future-state story. There are other big moves afoot that HE ignores at its peril.

Education Minister Dan Tehan has signalled that his first priority is coming up with “a new university funding model that meets two key goals”: a commitment to rural and regional HE, and ensuring HE delivers for the economy. With limited funds available, the tricky issue of finding places for Costello’s baby boom cohorts arriving in a few years’ time remains unresolved. The HE complexity is clear.

But if we lift our gaze beyond HE’s horizon, a plethora of other reviews require HE wrangling. In vocational education and training (VET), the Joyce Review reported in April 2019. Ministers Cash and Irons have already announced an Expert Panel to action Joyce, while Joyce’s recommended National Skills Commission has been established and $525m has been committed to the Delivering Skills for Today and Tomorrow package. In August, COAG announced its vision for Australia’s VET system; one where VET and HE are “equal and integral parts of a joined up and accessible post-secondary education system.” The government is serious: Scott Cam’s been recruited to boost VET’s profile.

In January 2018, the Halsey Review into Regional, Rural and Remote (RRR) Education was delivered. In November 2018, the government announced a Regional Education Package of $134.8m over four years to provide these students with greater access to HE. In August 2019, the Napthine Review articulated a RRR Tertiary Education Strategy and the government accepted the “aims of the seven key recommendations”.

And in August, the Education Council commissioned WSU’s Chancellor Peter Shergold to Review Senior Secondary Pathways with a particular emphasis on supporting students from equity groups. This has coincided with a fresh outbreak of calls to move Beyond ATAR, overhaul the ATAR or just calm down, with Shergold himself having previously expressed reservations about the strong reliance on ATAR’s “single measure of achievement”.

Joining the review dots, four themes emerge: a connected tertiary sector with parity of esteem between VET and HE; skills with “industry at the centre and… VET as a career pathway of choice”; RRR student pathways to tertiary education; and careers foci. HE is definitely taking a back seat; VET/tertiary is on the ascendency.

The agenda makes economic and social sense in the context of Industry 4.0 automation & AI, but HE is exposed on a number of fronts. First, the cap on funding HE places has “already led to an overall decline in regional student numbers and a dramatic reduction of growth for other equity groups”. Second, it is more expensive to support LSES students in HE than their medium/high SES peers. Third, young regional students are increasingly moving to the city to study: increasing from one third in 2005 to 57% in 2015. Fourth, HE has few effective pedagogies for VET-HE curricular collaborations.

As the Mitchell Institute entreated, a holistic approach to these various reviews must be adopted. Absent a NZ-style discussion for a tertiary education strategy, HE needs to articulate its future role in a connected educational ecosystem or be left languishing.

Professor Sally Kift

Visiting Professorial Fellow, National Centre for Student Equity in Higher Education (NCSEHE)


to get daily updates on what's happening in the world of Australian Higher Education