Can we improve tertiary education?

In November 2022, the Hon Jason Clare MP, Federal Minister for Education, appointed a panel to conduct a review to drive lasting reform in Australia’s higher education system, to deliver a higher education system that meets the current and future needs of the nation, and targets to achieve this. 

In June 2023, an interim report of this review was released. This interim report is titled Australian Universities Accord and details how the tertiary education system could be improved, encompassing Vocational Education and Training (VET). This report formulates a group of priorities that embrace suggested change, and is designed to be a vision for the future, with 2035 the target. 

The report sets the current scene, stating that the status quo needs to change as not much has altered since the Bradley Review in 2008. Unfortunately, since this review was undertaken, the focus has been on the short term. However, a focus on the long term, with sustained effort, is required. To achieve buy-in for this at a local level, Governments will need to set a vision that reflects the community. 

Classified as “areas of further consideration” and not the focus of the suggested priorities, the authors contemplated VET and how the sector fits within the proposed changes. They understand the bonds between higher education and VET will need to be strengthened in order to provide the skills required for industry needs now and into the future.  

The report highlights that the VET system provides opportunities for all Australians to engage with education in order to gain the skills that they, and the nation, need. Through improved coordination between the two sectors, students should be able to achieve their full potential and provide for Australia’s growing workforce demands. 

Research cited in the report suggests that transitioning to a clean economy will require people to engage in lifelong learning. It also noted that jobs that previously required vocational skills only will also require skills and knowledge historically learnt through the higher education system and vice versa1. However, the report also identified the challenge of transitioning between VET and higher education due to existing fragmentation and misalignment between the two sectors. This is further exacerbated by inconsistencies between universities’ credit transfers, advanced standing, and recognition of prior learning (RPL).  

In working towards a more coherent tertiary education system, there also needs to be “parity of esteem” between both sectors. Cultural barriers need to be removed and each sector needs to be recognised as “distinct, but equally important”. 

The clean economy has been identified as a national priority, and the report suggests that for such priorities there is a need to encourage innovative delivery.  To support this, industry providers need to be engaged in the course design phase, with both VET and higher education sectors to distinguish learning requirements across both sectors. A suggestion is made to utilise Cooperative Skills Centre, in order to bring together VET, higher education, industry and unions to provide rapid upskilling in areas of industry need. The authors are also looking at Institutes of Applied Technology that are being introduced into NSW following the Gonski review. 

The report suggests a universal learning entitlement, being a combination of public subsidy, student contribution and for some lifelong learning, an employer contribution. It suggests the current funding model disadvantages VET students who in some cases need to pay fees up front, therefore pushing students into industries less suited to them. This, in turn, further reinforces the stigma of VET as a lesser education pathway. 

While this is the interim report, with the final report to be tabled in December, what is proposed is extensive, with much consultation and discussion needing to take place. We look forward to the outcome of the discussions and debate regarding what is suggested and the way forward. 

Visit Department of Education website to read the full report. 

1 Page 50, Australian Universities Accord Interim Report Commonwealth of Australia, 2023 

2 Page 59, Australian Universities Accord Interim Report Commonwealth of Australia, 2023