In summary

The Federal Government’s announcement of the Australian Universities Accord Implementation Advisory Committee is welcome, but the glaring omission of dual sector representation is a missed opportunity.

The Federal Government's announcement of the Australian Universities Accord Implementation Advisory Committee has been met with mixed fanfare. As an advocate for future-focused educational reform, I welcome this step forward in implementing the recommendations of the Accord. However, the conspicuous absence of dual-sector representation on the committee strikes me as a significant – and unfortunate- oversight. 

The unique importance of dual sector institutions

Dual-sector universities like my own institution, Swinburne University of Technology, are critical to Australia’s successful transition from a resource economy to a knowledge and digital one. There are just six of us across the country, four in Victoria, one in Queensland and one in the Northern Territory. Given recent public debate about skill shortages and the need to take part in many emerging industries like space, clean energy or quantum, these institutions are perfectly positioned and uniquely equipped to provide access to the full spectrum of education our future workforce needs – from foundation skills and certificate level qualifications to bachelor and PhD. 

This capability is not just a feature; it is a fundamental foundation of dual sector institutions. If Australia needs to resolve the current unhelpful divide between the vocational and higher education sectors, which I think it does, then there is no better place to start than in dual sector institutions. 

If we are to meet the challenge of economic transition as a nation, then other states probably need to start creating dual sector universities of their own or they must devise their own way of combining the strengths of vocational and higher education in a more joined up tertiary system that can scaffold around learners and enable them to get what they need when they need it.  Just-in-time education is what dual sector universities can, and routinely do, deliver for their students and industry partners.

As Swinburne has proudly said before, the old logic of ‘get a trade or go to uni’ is a false and unhelpful dichotomy. Instead, the future of work in Australia requires a seamless relationship between vocational training and higher education. Bridging the gap will foster unique lifelong learning pathways, allowing learners to gain both practical and knowledge-based skills, essential for their likely trajectory between industries and careers.

The Federal Government’s own response to the Accord references the importance of “taking action to drive harmonisation between the higher education and Vocational Education and Training sectors.” By overcoming these hurdles, dual sector universities can bring to life the intention of the Universities Accord. We are the perfect Petri dish. 

We welcome the recently announced investment of $27.7 million over four years to improve tertiary collaboration, but we think much more can be done, right now, to make dual sector institutions the ideal partners of emerging and transformed industries.

Why dual sector expertise is crucial

Dual-sector institutions are at the forefront of designing and delivering educational programs that cater to a diverse range of industry needs and personal aspirations. They operate at the nexus of vocational and higher education, allowing both sectors to innovate and respond to evolving demand.

The Government's commitment to streamlining processes for dual-sector providers and enhancing tertiary harmonisation is promising. Yet, the absence of these institutions at the Accord Implementation Group (AIG) table is a glaring gap. Without our input, they risk overlooking practical insights to ensure a more streamlined and efficient system. Best case scenario is that they will spend time re-inventing the wheel, when we could be taking the highway to the future at an accelerating pace.

How dual sector is directly addressing the skills crisis 

Long term, the Accord calls for 80% of Australia’s workforce to earn some form of post-secondary qualification by 2050. To achieve this, we should leverage the strengths of dual-sector institutions. Our hands-on experience, combined with demonstrable theoretical knowledge, contributes a robust educational framework that is absolutely crucial for addressing skills shortages across various sectors.

For instance, engineers in the space industry require a blend of practical skills and knowledge—something dual-sector institutions are uniquely geared to provide. Similarly, social service professionals will benefit from integrated learning that enhances their practical skills with critical and digital capabilities.

That not a single dual-sector provider is on the Implementation Advisory Committee is disheartening, particularly when the final Accords report places significant emphasis on vocational education and training (VET) and ‘reducing red tape’.  Our absence from the panel is not just an omission; it is a critical misstep in shaping the future of Australia's tertiary education landscape.

Looking forward

As we continue to engage with the Government and support the AIG’s work, the unique perspectives and proven experience and capabilities of dual-sector institutions should be considered.  We should be front and centre to the Implementation Group’s thinking. 

Overlooking dual-sector expertise means perpetuating a fragmented educational ecosystem that fails to meet the diverse needs of our learners and industries. It is time to rectify this oversight and embrace the full spectrum of educational excellence that institutions like Swinburne can bring to the table. Only then can we hope to fully realise the transformative potential of the Australian Universities Accord.

Professor Pascale Quester is the Vice-Chancellor and President of Swinburne University of Technology

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