Jason Clare’s Sale of the Century

The Universities Accord Interim Report has created a new future for tertiary education – the question is will universities embrace, oppose or acquiesce?

If Education Minister Jason Clare convinces cabinet to adopt the Accord ideas as they are, it will be the policy sale of the century so far – creating an integrated tertiary education system, a study entitlement for all which is available across types of providers and a new national regulator.

Whether Mr Clare makes the sale will be due in part to how universities respond and so far reactions to the Accord range from the receptive to the resigned.

This was clear from the start, when none questioned the fifth of the Accord’s recommendations for immediate implementation, that Education Minister Jason Clare quickly made his own.

The first four are unremarkable, notably more study centres in underserviced areas and demand driving funding for all Indigenous students. But the fifth is a rebuke writ large to university managements – on governance, “university governing bodies having more people with expertise in the business of universities” and industrial relations, “making sure universities are good employers.”

To which peak body Universities Australia meekly responded that its members would “continue to engage with government.”

This was politically sensible – there is much in the Interim Report universities will want to change and starting an argument over a largely well-received report is not the way to start.

Thus, universities did not loudly criticise the Accord idea for a levy on international student fees, to fund “national and sector priorities such as infrastructure and research.”

And there was no outcry over proposals for research not mentioning money – and lots of it.

Certainly Science and Technology Australia called the Accord paper “an epic fail” – but in general other lobby groups stayed quiet.

Management groups have also largely left alone one of the two big, really big, Accord proposals – the creation of a single tertiary education system, which flows from the Accord call for a “life-long learning entitlement” for all Australians.

Perhaps VCs and their advisors assume Treasury will either stop-it or scale it down. But the cost is not the problem for universities, it’s the underpinning idea, that by 2035, “while higher education and VET institutions continue to be identified by their highly distinct missions and characteristics, the tertiary education sector works effectively as a whole system to meet the education, skills, and research needs of the nation.”

Nor was there significant criticism of the other big idea – a national agency to make a “whole system” happen.

That’s because in submissions to the Accord major HE lobbies called for a new regulator – what the Accord Interim Report calls a tertiary education commission.

The idea for a commission was triggered by the previous government’s culture-warring contempt for universities – a sympathetic agency to protect them from the executive and to cooperate with individual institutions in setting their goals and securing their funding.

But the Accord team has a much bigger role in mind. A TEC would be, “charged with overseeing the development of a fit-for-purpose tertiary system and operating with a degree of independence from government.

“A national body purposefully convened for sector oversight would possess the expertise and authority to drive the strategic direction of tertiary education, guiding institutions as they navigate the complex and evolving education landscape.”

Overall, what the Accord proposes is quite clear – a national post-school system with people studying HE and VET, which can be taught in the same institution – and a regulator oversighting it all.

Perhaps universities hope it will come to naught – that the time such a grand scheme would take will ensure its ambitions are eroded, or that the sheer cost of a life-long study entitlement will stop it before it starts. Perhaps they rely on the states refusing to surrender their TAFEs to become a foundation of a national approach.

Universities might think if they do not give the government a target by complaining too much it will all unravel by year end, when the final Accord report is due.

They may be right in the long term, but for now Mr Clare occupies the political and policy heights on HE reform.

We will have a sense of how university leaders will respond when the new president of Universities Australia addresses the National Press Club, August 9.



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