The remaking of Higher Education in Australia includes us all

The remaking of Higher Education in Australia includes us all

The Universities Accord process presents a once in a generation opportunity to shape the future of Australian higher education, both now and into the future. It considers a wide breadth of issues facing the university sector, including how to meet Australia’s future skills requirements, increasing access for under-represented cohorts of students, enhancing student and staff welfare, changed governance and regulation arrangements, and ensuring that teaching and research activities are sustainable.

The Accord states that the objective of the Australian tertiary sector is to underpin a strong, equitable and resilient democracy; and drive national economic, social development and environmental sustainability.

The report recognises that these objectives are not achievable without ‘society wide partnerships’.  Infused throughout the report is support for cross-sector and cross-system collaboration to drive public benefit. To better teach high-quality generic skills needed by graduates, universities, industry, and community partners are encouraged to work together (Finding: Generic Skills). Attainment targets are to be met by higher education and VET providers working together to create a more integrated tertiary education system.  The Accord recommends collaboration between all regulatory bodies and higher education stakeholders to develop a new National Research Evaluation and Impact Framework to strengthen the capacity of Australian universities and researchers (Recommendation 29). In addition, the Indigenous-led review of higher education is set to be conducted in consultation with Indigenous stakeholder groups (Recommendation 34).

In its opening chapter, the Accord finds that universities have ‘deep connections to their communities that go well beyond education and research.’  Community engagement by universities is the ‘third steam’ of university activity, alongside research and teaching, and ‘represents a major and largely unsung contribution to the nation.’

Now that the Universities Accord final report has been released, the government faces the challenge of implementing its 47 recommendations. This will be a lengthy process, with staged implementation. As federal Education Minister Jason Clare said, the Accord “is a plan not for one budget, but a blueprint for the next decade and beyond”.

For universities, this means that we now must ensure the views of our students, staff, community and industry partners are considered before the various reforms are set in stone.

A key element of the Accord is the creation of more and flexible pathways into tertiary education, opening the university system to more students from diverse backgrounds. This is not just a social imperative but also an economic one: To meet Australia’s current and future workforce needs, the entire tertiary education sector needs to grow. Equitable access to universities (Recommendations 10 -15) therefore goes hand-in-hand with the ambitious tertiary education attainment target of at least 80% of the working age population by 2050 (Recommendation 2).

We know that engaged universities deliver greater public benefit. We also know that reform is best designed and delivered when there is engagement across the system. A diverse pool of knowledge, life-experience and ideas leads to more creative, robust and sound results. Having the buy in of those who are impacted by decisions also means any reforms are more likely to withstand the test of time. We look forward to working with our students, staff, supporters, community, industry and – ultimately – government to create a resilient, diverse, and cutting-edge university sector of the future.

Prof. Verity Firth
Vice-President, Societal Impact, Equity and Engagement at UNSW
Deputy Chair, Engagement Australia.