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A manifesto to change higher education for good: opinion

This op-ed summarises a HEDx submission to the Universities Accord. It advocates a manifesto for change to allow:

  • Universal access for every individual with potential to benefit, and participants to be confident they can gain good outcomes, from postsecondary participation,
  • Integrated postsecondary programs enabling lifelong learning for evolving future skills needs generated by new technologies and industries, and
  • Partnerships between education providers, employers and communities, and innovative services and technology, to integrate needs of learners, employers, research end users, communities, and education providers.

It advocates for a portfolio of institutions, different to current undifferentiated provision, to meet the needs of future students and learners, stakeholders and partners.

We need a diverse range of post-secondary education providers with capacity for:

  • World-class and relevant research and knowledge development;
  • Local and community-based provision to serve regional priorities;
  • Affordable and accessible skills and competency-based education; and
  • Scalable and technologically-enabled provision of lifelong learning.

It calls for changes to provider standards, and funding compact arrangements, for differentiated providers to provide one or more, but not all the above.

This needs to embrace intra-sector pathways and partnerships focussed on lifelong learning, and student engagement and success, using new models, technologies and global approaches.

It will require completion targets and outcome achievement objectives, at both institution and sector level, for activities of a new lifelong learning strategy.

This strategy needs to halve the gap for participation by under-represented student groups by 2030 and allow completion of stages of lifelong learning to mirror our wider population by 2040.

Funding compacts for institutions need to be based on long-term outcomes for more diverse and under-represented student groups. They need to allow system-level social capital targets to be cascaded to individual institution funding agreements with material consequences for non-delivery.

New providers should emerge over 20-30 years. We need to maintain our world class research universities, but not 40 of them. Our leading research players need to focus on that mission and be mandated and adequately funded to do so.

We then need current mid-ranked comprehensive research universities to find distinctive missions. Some providers will focus on outstanding student experiences and increase the access to opportunity to more under-represented students.

We propose to establish the Australian Regional University as a premier, distinct-mission institution. The ARU should become a federation of regional institutions serving national needs, with an explicit regional development focus, and separate funding and regulatory status.

A single ARU federation would allow a specific mission, multi-campus and multi-state federated institution, to build current discrete legacy brands into a premier brand. It needs shared back-office resources, expertise, capacity and strategy.

It should draw on principles behind State university systems in places such as California, Texas and Georgia in the US.

Our existing model for higher education is undermined by career pattern changes caused by new knowledge, and learner and employer expectations.

The current system was initially designed for school-leavers expecting campus-based education in local points of delivery, physically and temporally distinct from workplaces.

We now have a ubiquitous need for lifelong learning.

We need a system, for a diverse and inclusive future learning community, that learns while it works, from learning co-designed with future employers.

Learning is needed in more affordable, flexible and bite-sized programs, delivered innovatively in globally-leading ways. A new lifelong learning strategy will drive change to this position.

Policy is needed lifting current caps on funding, which effectively limits student numbers. A Lifelong Learning Tax Incentive Scheme that becomes part of the R&D Tax Incentive Scheme will help achieve this.

It needs to be a partnership between government, industry and other employers, and universities and their students.

It would allow part of future HECS/HELP student contribution repayments to be incentivised by shared contributions from lifelong learning employers in areas of skills shortage and future skills needs, and support programmatic new course provision to meet them.

This would form part of a new lifelong learning strategy that allows funding to be contributed to by students, government and employers, in ways that are institution-type and learning level agnostic.

It will be part of a new approach to combined student and employer contributions based on allocating investment from all future beneficiaries of lifelong learning, in an environment of skills shortages.

It would be prioritised to skills needs, employers and lifelong learning situations where there are current market failings, rather than incentivising skills supply that happens anyway.

An obvious current example would be in working with departments of education in ensuring a teaching and education workforce.

A second candidate for shared student and employer support would be healthcare professions and responses to an ageing population.

The nature of modern careers, and global competition for skills, talent, and economic and societal development, gives a growing need for postsecondary education to be engaged in by all. We have grown participation for the wider population.

We have done little to close the gap in participation by under-represented groups. We have created a division in postsecondary education between VET and higher education in funding, status, financial support to students, and policy.

We need an integrated postsecondary education system with seamless pathways between tertiary and higher education.

A future lifelong learning strategy will evolve current HECS and HELP environments, once extended to all VET and other pathway providers, to become lifelong learning entitlements rather than school-leaver focussed.

This should mirror the UK Lifelong Learning Entitlement policies. The current system of a split in state and federal responsibility for VET and higher education is unhelpful, and confusing.

Policy should be introduced to establish equitable, universal government contributions and access to HECS and HELP as a unified system.

Such moves should connect to growing partnerships between universities and industry for knowledge development, and partnerships between providers and stakeholders.

All would be enabled and supported by providers becoming exemplars of equitable, diverse, and inclusive employment practices that mirror and encourage the sector’s values through leadership and management that is diverse in its characteristics.

Our mission compacts, regulation and funding should require and reward these practices.

Research and knowledge creation are of critical national importance. We place a disproportionate responsibility for it on universities and expect all to be comprehensively world class in research.

Our employment practices and culture created an outdated model of an academic workforce of all-rounders, supported by a casualised workforce with limited career development opportunities.

This model is unfit for current practice and future directions and development. We have also built a universal and inherited business model where research funding is reliant on international student fee income.

We need a focussed and strategic national knowledge ecosystem with closer links to industry, community and stakeholder groups, beyond a narrow focus on commercialisation.

It needs some of our universities to be freed from having to have ubiquitous high-quality research, to offer lifelong learning.

We need a postsecondary education system supported to work in partnerships with employers. We also need innovative delivery partnerships with EdTech and BigTech providers to allow new products and business models to serve changes in demand and prepare us to compete globally.

We can incentivise growth and optimise outstanding internationalisation and international student experiences, and national economic and societal benefit, at the system rather than institutional level.

This can be achieved by a levy to international student fee income on those in advantageous locations and settings, allowing that levy income to compensate institutions who lack the wherewithal to gain that advantage.

This can be by linking funding more directly with performance outcomes linked to contracted missions defined in funding compacts.

Re-distributing the levied benefits from such a policy through compacts, will enable us to establish funded partnership programs for knowledge creation, development and transfer between end users and education providers that focus on building partnerships.

This should be in addition to appropriate programs for commercialisation and fundamental research. It should result in a net increase in total research funding to meet OECD norms for proportions of GDP invested in research, of well above 2%.

First published in Campus Review on 17th April 2023.
Emeritus Professor Martin Betts, Co-Founder of HEDx