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Where are the Uni Accord’s big ideas that will change higher ed for good?

A major review of our higher education sector, on a scale not seen since Dawkins or Bradley, is a time for ideas. Our times call for these ideas to be big, bold, and radical, because so much depends on it.

Australian universities have been successful and innovative and at the heart of skill development, capacity building, knowledge creation and transfer, and the international reputation and relationships that served us well.

Our universities have seen growth in scale, student numbers, research performance, campus development, and income-generating innovations, all competitive on a global scale.

Yet the Universities Accord has been initiated because of our ambition as a nation to do more, our confidence that we can do even better, and because we need to prepare for a future that requires higher education more than ever before.

At the heart of the review that Minister Clare initiated, whose Panel’s discussion paper was launched at the recent UA Conference, is the concept of an Accord.

As Jenny Macklin a member of the Panel appropriately defined it:

“Accords bring people together to discuss challenges and agree a joint path forward. In higher education this could mean a continuous and dynamic process of government coming together with universities, higher education providers, students, business, unions, and community leaders, to agree on the best way that higher education can meet Australia’s economic, cultural, and social aspirations and allow them to be continually developed over time.”

New governments often initiate reviews in areas that are not working well but this review was always going to be a bit different as we actually have a pretty impressive higher education system.

This review is about seeing if this good system can step up to help Australia tackle some big policy challenges more effectively.

This review takes place in the middle of a global skills shortage and war for talent.

But must also cater for long term population vulnerability from global falls in birth rates and ageing populations, which with work and experience changes are creating long-term shifts towards lifelong learning.

It is responding to immediate accessibility challenges, particularly in our regions and for under-represented student groups.

These include the need to improve retention and completion rates. But has a broader challenge to serve long-term needs for social cohesion and democratisation of learning access that is emerging as a dominant global phenomenon.

It is taking place when we have short-term opportunities to harness what was learnt from a rush to online learning and virtual research and engagement processes.

This requires reconciling rapid and irreversible advances in technology with some current learning and assessment processes and practices that are ill-suited to them.

This needs us to be open to innovate, transform, manage disruption, and form lasting partnerships and dialogue with newly emerging EdTech and BigTech collaborators.

And it’s taking place when Australia is moving increasingly from a service economy to a knowledge economy but is still struggling to work out how it draws on the great research and knowledge expertise in our higher education system.

This is an opportunity and a time for big and bold ideas.

Those ideas can clearly come from the many bright people we have in the sector.  Our higher education institutions have many innovative thinkers and pioneers of organisational and management practices, learning and pedagogy, and technology and science, amongst others.

All are passionate about their work, disciplines and how knowledge and learning advance within them.

They are capable and inquisitive in combining expertise with peers from other disciplines and institutions. They, and their institutions, have much to offer to an Accord process.

Views about their leaders experiences and future priorities were recently published in a book titled the New Leadership Agenda.

But if we are really to gain the biggest and boldest ideas for the way our higher education system might transform, we might look further afield to new university models that have emerged at places like Arizona State University in the US, University of Waterloo in Canada, and Coventry University in the UK.

We might embrace thinking towards new educational institutions being speculated on by leaders of learning innovation in MIT.

We might reflect on how Asia in general, and Singapore in particular, have moved from being where we once looked mainly as a source of onshore students to our campuses.

They might now be where approaches to higher education system planning, of mission and discipline specific differentiation in institutions, offer inspirations for how we might progress our own system.

Beyond looking to ourselves, and for lessons from those like us in other parts of the world, this is also a time to learn from other sectors.

The way that business models, a customer focus, technology strategies, collaborative partnerships and innovative cultures have transformed sectors with parallels to education, learning and knowledge development are extensive and rich and give rise to thoughts of a New Learning Economy.

The Accord needs big ideas, and bold thinking from multiple sources, to make lasting change and initiate a culture and mindset to set us up for the long term.

It is harder to think what we need for the next 20-30 years and horizons shorter than that are easier and stimulate different ideas.

That longer time frame needs the best and most diverse ideas from innovators within the sector, and the most successful and varied parallel thoughts from global leaders and innovators of our genre.

But big and bold new ideas of a reimagined long-term future might also come from drawing in an unfiltered view from our customers, and lessons other sectors have learnt when facing transformation, disruption, new customer expectations, and rapid technology change of their own.

There is a need for facilitators of big ideas into the Accord.

They have the chance to provoke great and vital submissions from the sector itself.

In a review that has such importance for all our futures, and for the nation and our people that are the reason we are conducting it, we also need to go beyond the risk of any groupthink.

Limited perspectives and experiences that cloud and crowd out potential shafts of light from further afield need augmenting.

We reflected on many of these opportunities for the accord on a recent HEDx podcast together you can access here.

We both see great opportunity for the Accord’s big ideas to come from multiple diverse sources in changing higher education for good.

First published in Campus Review on 6th March 2023.
Emeritus Professor Martin Betts, Co-Founder of HEDx
Professor Mary O’Kane is Chair of the Australian Universities Accord Review Panel