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Global lessons from reviews of higher education policy

It is easy to think we are alone in going through a once in a generation review of higher education and that all the answers we need should come from within. Before jumping to that conclusion, one of several reality and sense checks can come from contrasting our experience and thoughts towards solutions, with lessons others learned trying the same.

In the UK, recent weeks have seen the celebration and recognition of two major reviews from the past.  It is 60 years in October since the Robbins review and the establishment of the Robbins principle. This principle stated that university education should be ‘available for all those who are qualified by ability and attainment to pursue them and who wish to do so’. The goal of growing and broadening university access is far from new.

Budget constraints in the UK are causing this long-cherished principle to be re-examined in terms of public funding. The university model as the only or preferred way for employers and students to gain skills for future workforces is also increasingly under question. With record low levels of quality applications going into UK admissions processes, with US university demand continuing to fall, and with the latest Australian Tertiary Admissions Centres data showing further and continuing declines, there is evidence of low demand at clear odds with our Accord’s aspirations for growth. This is even more acute if we assume it will all come from current providers and models of education. The UK has also seen the think tank formed in response to the 1997 Dearing report in HEPI reflect on 20 years of informing national policy and the development of the university model.

The recently released Lords Committee review of the UK Office for Students shows only too clearly how even modern governance mechanisms arising from sector reviews can themselves be found to have substantially missed the mark. How can Australia ensure that any future review of a new Tertiary Education Commission (TEC) had picked up on obvious mistakes made by others, before making them again?

Closer to home there have been efforts towards higher education reform in New Zealand.  The Tertiary Education Advisory Commission convened some twenty years’ ago in response to funding crises, assessments of performance deficits and loss of confidence in government’s management of the tertiary education system. It identified the need to take a more strategic approach to the system.  The review proposed establishing a TEC to maintain oversight of a single tertiary education framework that integrated VET and HE.  Does this sound familiar?

The lessons from the New Zealand TEC are noteworthy. The work involved in administering the process of deciding on funding associated with approved compacts for more than 190 TEQSA registered HE providers, together with many more that a broader tertiary education integration would entail, are extensive. To do that work, plus advise on policy and strategy, and take political responsibility for doing so, is a volume of work and spread of responsibility too far.

However, a TEC with a focus on nudging the sector to deliver on particular outcomes – for example lifting the levels of equity student participation and success and driving an accelerated agenda including for Indigenous students – is worth consideration. Given the ambition in the Accord Interim Report on enhancing Indigenous success in higher education, there may well be a role for such a body. If the New Zealand example is anything to go by, the TEC’s focus on equity for Māori and Pacific students is well worth consideration. In other words, such a body might well be useful to ‘hold our feet to the fire’, so to speak.

Accepting realities of political economy and political responsibility, in what the scope of a TEC can realistically be, is critical. If government has a clear direction for the system – for instance in setting ambitious growth, attainment and equity targets – can it realistically leave an arm’s length governing body to then bear responsibility for its decisions in the public domain, and under public scrutiny?

The possible scope of the TEC laid out in the interim report of the Australian Universities Accord suggests the need to not only administer large volumes of operational decisions, and manage the political dimension, but pay attention to policies, ideas, and evolving policy and strategies. We can best do so by continuously scanning the horizon for global and out of sector best practice innovations. It is difficult to imagine a fundamental research centre in HE, as proposed in the interim report, having all the actionable answers to this full range of challenges.

Being aware of global trends and developments, and demand side realities, in an implementation and governance response needs to consider more than just the current supply side aspirations and hopes for growth.  Will we really get a doubling of university graduates by 2050 from largely underrepresented equity groups when the school supply side is ill-equipped for it, many students do not complete, and we lack funds for expansion? Our students and employers might be looking for something else to give them the skills they want anyway. Just putting a TEC in place to measure and administer what is done, rather than change it, will not be going far enough. Some of these functions need some clear separation.

October 14th is looming as a big day of decision on both sides of the Tasman. New Zealand is looking for a new government and the issue of the future of universities has already started to feature in political debates there.  Are they about to get another HE review? Will this be more than a moving of deckchairs, in a world of not enough funds, where students and employers are not well satisfied by the current HE provider model anyway?

Australia has its referendum, on what most in the sector see as a straightforward choice. It is to begin a process of listening to those impacted by policy in seeking to close gaps in Indigenous opportunity and lives.  We might also need to listen to other stakeholders impacted by HE policy decisions, hearing from more than those currently supplying the system.

We need to hear more from the demand side, other providers, and other places that do reconciliation better than us. Other parts of the world may also be doing HE policy better than us too, in our shared context of global budget tightness and endemic demand changes.

To avoid making policy changes that do not stand a future review test well, we should listen to their lessons carefully. We discussed these issues in a recent HEDx podcast episode available here. You can listen there to lessons about several of  our current policy issues, learnt in New Zealand, from those centrally involved in the process.

First published in Campus Review on 4th October 2023.

Professor Martin Betts, Founder of HEDx

Professor Giselle Byrnes, Provost, Massey University

Roger Smyth, Independent Consultant