In Summary

  • Opinion for The Australian by Professor Linda Kristjanson AO, Vice-Chancellor, Swinburne University of Technology

This week, vice-chancellors from every Australian university will meet in Canberra for our annual conference. At this conference exactly five years ago, Tony Abbott, then opposition leader, promised universities a period of “masterly inactivity”, yet this was not to be.

Instead, the government took the disappointing decision to end the demand-driven funding system — risking long-term damage as access for students to education and the innovation that arises from an open market diminish as a result.

Labor has come out in support of reinstating the demand-driven system and we will hold it to it. It also has stated its intent to review the tertiary education sector. And so, amid ongoing policy uncertainty for the sector, it seems prudent to return to the big picture.

Today, we sit at the dawn of the fourth industrial revolution where virtual, physical and biological worlds will merge. Sophisticated cognitive, robotic and automation technologies will transform our world in ways that are difficult to imagine.

These technologies increasingly are able to perform human skills better, faster and more cheaply.

“The future of work” increasingly is entering our lexicon, often defined in pessimistic terms. What opportunities will graduates have? Will there be enough jobs for everyone?

These are uncertain times. But, in many ways, we have been here before. In particular, two unrelated events a half-century ago in the US shed light on how we can overcome the challenges we face as a society in 2018.

It was the dawn of the third industrial revolution in the 1960s, when new computer technologies started automating manufacturing. In doing so, fears of joblessness were unleashed.

So concerned was US president Lyndon B. Johnson that he established the blue-ribbon National Commission on Technology, Automation and Economic Progress to examine the consequences for jobs and living standards. The commission eventually concluded: “The basic fact is that technology eliminates jobs, not work.”

The 60s also witnessed the birth of one of the most successful public tertiary education systems. The Master Plan for Higher Education in California stratified and interconnected tertiary education from vocational skills through to PhD research. At its core were the principles of diversity, access and quality.

The plan guaranteed a subsidised university place for the top 45 per cent of all school-leavers, or a subsidised place at a community college for any student choosing a vocational career. Central to its success, the plan guaranteed complete articulation from community college through to the University of California.

Fast forward to last year; California has the sixth largest and arguably the most innovative economy of the planet. The California Master Plan has fuelled this economic transformation by educating and upskilling millions of students, empowering them to create the jobs of the future.

The policy debate here in Australia seems to have lost sight of the big picture. Instead of creating policy certainty at a time when it is needed, there are discordant and uncoordinated policy shifts across all post-secondary sectors.

Instead of discussing the role business should play in helping secure their own future, we simply expect students and taxpayers to continue to fund the future skills development demanded by the labour market.

Instead of ensuring we give every student the opportunity to realise their full potential, we are focused on limiting places. Every vice-chancellor in Australia is acutely aware of the need to identify efficiencies and cost-savings in our businesses.

While I do question why our sector, which contributed $140 billion to Australia’s gross domestic product in 2014, is the target for cuts rather than investment, it is the absence of a coherent plan that has magnified the harm of the measures announced in the mid-year economic and fiscal outlook statement before Christmas last year.

As David Lloyd at the University of South Australia has observed, the freeze of under­graduate enrolments amounts to a cap on ambition when we can least afford it as a society.

Australia needs a new master plan for post-secondary education. Here are three suggested starting points.

First, without providing dependable schemes for sub-bachelor and vocational places, many students who otherwise would choose a vocational education or enter the tertiary system through a pathway program, end up in a much more expensive university place.

Second, funding of education can no longer be seen simply through the dichotomy of public good versus private benefit. In an increasingly dynamic labour market, the right skills are as much a commercial risk as they are a private benefit. Thus the ever-increasing rate of change on the demand side of the labour market means securing the right skills is increasingly a commercial imperative. We must ensure business is at the table to contribute time and capital to this effort.

Third, we need to ensure the core principles of diversity, access and quality are equal across all levels of post-secondary education. A student with the ambition and talent yet not the schooling opportunity should have the certainty of guaranteed articulation to whichever level they aspire.

And TAFEs and universities should have the funding certainty for all such student journeys.

No doubt my colleagues could add many others to this list. We stand ready to engage with the government, opposition and industry on coherent policy settings. Australia’s future depends on it.

Written by Professor Linda Kristjanson AO, Vice-Chancellor, Swinburne University of Technology. This article was originally published on The Australian. Read the original article.