In a newly released paper, Stephen Parker of KPMG, Andrew Dempster and Mark Warburton set out to “provoke discussion” about the future for Australia’s tertiary education system.

Based on inputs from over 60 people, the paper reimagines tertiary education with different types of providers, each innovating and aiming to be the best it can be.

The current state: a binary system

Presently we have a binary tertiary education system: VET and higher education. They are distinguished by both funding arrangements and approaches to learning (CBT versus curriculum-based). International students are important to both higher education and VET and, combined, both components make a significant contribution to economic growth and export earnings. The paper argues that there are issues, however. These include restricted access to higher education in regional areas, a lack of diversity in offerings and the extent to which social inequality and other disadvantage is addressed, especially through pathways between higher education and VET.  As they also report, VET has suffered reputational damage of late and funding cuts in real terms.

A tertiary ecosystem?

The authors argue for a unified tertiary system. This will require more than mere tweaking in their view, however. They argue a new mindset is needed. One change is not seeing public or private provision as intrinsically good or bad. The paper draws on the Bradley Review and, like them, argues for unified national funding and regulation, and an integrated tertiary sector. Teaching and research quality should be recognised as different they believe, but of more equal value. Innovation and fairness are needed too, and need to be encouraged. In short, they advocate a freed up tertiary system and Australian Qualifications Framework. (AQF).

What do they see as needed? First, they advocate for a single tertiary funding framework from AQF levels 1 to 10. They acknowledge that this is the most fundamental reform to achieve, but likely the most difficult. Second, they argue for a tertiary system built around a ‘refreshed’ AQF. This work is in progress. They have also called for greater funding transparency and accountability and an independent tertiary education pricing authority. This is all coupled with a unified tertiary education loans scheme.

The authors advocate for tightened regulatory arrangements, particularly for the VET component of tertiary sector, but they also acknowledge that this system needs to be responsive to the circumstances of particular tertiary providers. They also seem to be suggesting that TEQSA and ASQA eventually ‘come together’, which was a scenario envisaged in earlier times.

Next, they suggest an instrument to appraise and recognise excellence in teaching. Better information is also needed, they believe, to inform student choice, and this has certainly been a longstanding discussion in VET. Finally, they suggest removing higher education provider categories. While there are arguments for carefully preserving the brand name ‘university’, there is also a strong need to ensure that tertiary institutions attain their status and reputation primarily on the quality of their offerings and the outcomes their students achieve. Their suggestion is that this can be achieved both by large institutions with wide-ranging offerings and smaller more ‘boutique’ providers that focus on excellence in a narrower range of disciplines.

The authors conclude that:

“It is time to reimagine our tertiary education sector as an ecosystem of providers, regulated sufficiently to ensure the quality of provision by fit and proper institutions, protect our students and enhance our national reputation in the world but otherwise freed up to develop more distinctive institutional missions. The distinction between higher and vocational education as it has evolved in Australia is incoherent and outmoded. In the future we may require new mixes of skills, capabilities and knowledge, and new pathways between types of qualifications. We will only know when the time comes, so we need to design the ecosystem to enable us to be adaptive and responsive.”