The education sector is no stranger to policy reviews. The process can be as promising as it is daunting for those involved, and stakeholders working in education are often keen to ensure their voices are heard. Dr Ant Bagshaw unpacks the Australian Universities Accord, announced in November last year, and explores what past reviews from around the world might tell us to expect.
This year, the Australian higher education sector is excited. In part, that excitement comes from an open border and international students returning in large numbers. The disruption of the COVID pandemic is in the rear-view mirror, and there is a lot of talk of micro-credentials and new ways in which universities can address the country’s pressing skills gaps. But, more than any of that, the sector is talking about the University Accord process. The excitement is not without merit.
Reviews of higher education systems are a regular occurrence in many jurisdictions. Australia has fond memories of the 2008 Bradley Review, the last time policymakers had a hard look at higher education. In the UK, the Robbins Review of 1963 established the principles which shaped the development of the sector for the rest of the twentieth century. More recently in England, reviews by Dearing in 1997 and Browne in 2010, are known for their impact on undergraduate tuition fees though both had wider remits. More recently, Wales’ Diamond Review in 2016 made significant changes to student support in the principality.
For the current Australian review process, the Labor Government, which won the Federal election in 2022, has established an expert panel led by a former vice-chancellor, Professor Mary O’Kane. Naming it an accord rather than review, inquiry or commission, reflects a history of industry-wide agreements, particularly between employers and trade unions. It’s a term which has resonance for the Labour party and creates an expectation of collaboration between multiple interested parties.
The terms of reference are wide, with seven areas of focus:
1.Meeting Australia’s knowledge and skills needs, now and in the future
2.Access and opportunity
3.Investment and affordability
4.Governance, accountability and community
5.The connection between the vocational education and training and higher education systems
6.Quality and sustainability
7.Delivering new knowledge, innovation and capability.
That’s a lot to do, and the review panel made up of eminent names from within higher education and industry only has a year in which to do it.
Inevitably, the broad terms of reference for the Universities Accord have a lot of people excited about the scope of potential change in the sector. With this remit, radical changes could be made to the way Australian higher education is funded, organised and regulated. Many commentators have already submitted lengthy analysis and evidence to the panel in the hope of shaping the review’s conclusions.
I’m cautious about whether there will be radical change. The sector is mostly in good health with large, well-funded universities producing employable graduates and enabling the country to punch above its weight in research. Secondly, there needs to be significant political will to make change for the sector, a prospect that seems unlikely in the context of more pressing demands on parliamentary time like fixing the economy, saving us from climate disaster, reforming the Constitution or addressing the infrastructure needs.
In education and industry policy, it’s the skills agenda – vocational education and training – and lifelong learning which are likely to receive more attention from this government. In part, this is due to these topics speaking more to a traditional Labor base. There is also much more to fix here with fragmented and inadequate funding, misalignment to industry needs and a deficit from a history of neglect from policymakers.
With so much else to do, finding the political space to make policy changes for higher education seems unlikely. For me, the interesting part is how the sector engages with the review process and the opportunity it affords for renewing, or reshaping, our understanding of the purposes and benefits of higher education.
What’s the point in reviews?
Major reviews of areas of public policy happen often. They offer politicians ways of developing ideas and proposals for reform through deep engagement with experts like the people chosen for the Accord’s review panel. Through consultation exercises, calls for evidence, visits and research, these review processes gather large volumes of information, evaluate and synthesise it into priorities and make recommendations which politicians can then adopt, or not. The review process can be particularly useful for addressing complex problems, and in areas where the solutions may not be immediately obvious. Reviews are useful when there is a sense that ‘something should be done’, but not exactly what that something is.
Reviews in higher education are particularly useful tools because of the way the sector is structured. In Australia, and in other countries including New Zealand and the UK, universities operate in a quasi-autonomous, highly regulated system. They are generally established by the government, either at a national or state level. They receive a mix of funding directly from government, indirectly via loans made to students, and through income from students themselves such as accommodation fees or tuition from international students.
The autonomy of institutions means that governments have more limited levers to effect change than in the schools system or another more centrally controlled area. This is why consultation with the sector is an important tool for socialising policy ideas and ensuring that the recommendations of the review lay out a case for change.
Politicians can also try to hand over difficult decisions to a review process. The level of tuition fees for domestic undergraduates is a contentious topic: it affects a lot of people and has the potential to be a political minefield. Just ask Nick Clegg. Prior to the May 2010 general election in the UK, candidates from the Liberal Democrats signed pledges not to raise the level of tuition fees. When the Browne Review came out six months later in November, the government’s policy was to raise the headline fee three-fold. By this point, Clegg, as leader of the Liberal Democrats was Deputy Prime Minister in a coalition with the Conservatives, felt compelled to support the fee increase. Many people remember this as a betrayal and it was one of the reasons the Liberal Democrats were all but wiped out at the following election. The review can take some of the heat but the decisions rest with politicians.
In the case of the Universities Accord, the rationale for its establishment is that there is a set of issues facing the sector which need to be addressed. One of these issues is tuition rates, on which a lot of attention has focused, but there are also matters like equitable access to higher education which has barely improved in a decade. While successful as a whole, the Australian higher education sector isn’t serving all communities equally and there are big gulfs in participation between regional and metropolitan areas.
By establishing a review process, the Minister is using a mechanism for explore the interconnection of issues of funding and fair access alongside research and community engagement. It’s from this exploration that we can – possibly – have coordinated and coherent policy responses.
What can Albanese learn from May?
When Theresa May became UK Prime Minister in 2016, she made a key plank of her policy agenda creating a fairer society. In this spirit, she established a major review of tertiary funding in early 2017 with a panel chaired by Philip Augar, who had spent the majority of his career in financial services. This review, which looked across the whole post-18 education landscape, aimed to explore the choices available to students, value for money and access to education as well as ensure adequate skills provision. Augar and his panel of academics and business leaders provided their Review of Post-18 Education and Funding, known as the Augar Review, in 2019 but its conclusions were not implemented.
Even the casual follower of British politics will know that it’s been a tough few years. The Brexit vote in 2016 caused massive disruption socially and economically, and it also gummed up the workings of parliament. General elections, supposed to be every five years, took place in 2015, 2017 and 2019. May left office in 2019 and has since been succeeded by Boris Johnson, Liz Truss and Rishi Sunak. In the same period, six ministers held responsibility for higher education. With turnover of leaders and chaos in parliament, there has been no time or inclination for reform.
England’s higher education system performs well by international standards. But there are serious issues which need to be addressed: real terms funding per student has dropped significantly, student debt is an increasingly problematic part of the national accounts, staff are dissatisfied leading to widespread industrial action, and the sector needs to invest in digital education, mental health support, and further extending access to underserved communities. The Augar report may not have solved all of these concerns, but its consideration would have provided space for genuine political choices rather than a muddling along of an increasingly creaking system.
Australia’s political system is in more robust health and Prime Minister Anthony Albanese has the spring in his step of a leader whose party has returned to power after nearly a decade in opposition. The economy is in better shape than the UK’s, and the higher education sector is starting in a better place than England’s. But for observers of the policymaking process, the Augar report is illustrative of the potential gap between the ambitions and excitement at the start of a process and the inaction at the end of it. Albanese won’t see himself going the way of May, but the sector should be wary of overinvesting in what the Accord can do.
Where’s the value in the Accord?
If we temper our ambitions for the review process leading to major change in the sector, is there still value in the process? I think that it’s an essential task to engage, and to maintain the optimism that there might be change if also being realistic that it’s not guaranteed. Here’s my advice for making the most of this year of the Accord:
- Assume that there’s no extra money. It’s tempting to look at a review process and to imagine what could change for the higher education sector from additional investment. There isn’t going to be any more money for the sector. This isn’t because the sector isn’t valuable or important, or even that there isn’t a good case for investment. There won’t be extra money because of the macro conditions, because of paying off the borrowing in the pandemic years and focusing extra dollars on sectors which need the money more urgently. In this context, ideas for the Accord need to offer savings, be cost neutral, or very cheap. Ideas for reforming or reorganising the sector to be more efficient are likely to be welcomed by policymakers.
- Share your proposals publicly. Teams in universities and other organisations have been working on their documentation for the Accord, and many have shared their responses. But there is more that can be done to communicate about the themes and issues raised and actively with stakeholders not just published on websites. I’d love to see universities engaging students and staff in the conversation about what’s important to them about the future of higher education, and promoting dialogue with communities around the valuable role that institutions play. If we see the traffic as two-way between institutions and the Accord, we miss the opportunity for the rich dialogue with others who matter.
- Ensure that marginal ideas are raised. There are well-funded and well-organised lobby groups in the higher education sector which have had a lot of time to hone their skills in policy influence. They will be coordinated in their approach to the Accord and will make compelling arguments. It’s vital that other voices are heard too, and that there is opportunity to explore ideas from different angles. It may be that the lobby groups are right, but their role is to speak for part of the sector not the whole. This is why it’s important for more voices to engage in the process, to offer solutions, and not just leave it to vested interests.
The Accord process will run its course but there is an opportunity to do more, to add more value to the activity by using the structure of the review to support a dialogue about the place of higher education in society. I have many conversations which surface a concern about universities’ social licence to operate. The sector shouldn’t wait for the outcomes of a review which may or may not have any impact. It is incumbent on leaders across the sector to use the process as a means to broader ends.
The year of the Accord
This year, the Australian higher education sector has a timely opportunity for reflection and exploration. The Universities Accord process does not currently face the same challenges as the Augar report, although time will tell if Australia faces similar political upheaval. Nonetheless, it will still take a lot of stars to align to manifest political appetite for major change. The Australian sector has few outlets for public debate on the state of higher education. It’s also a small sector in which a few loud voices are prominent. There is also so much to be positive about in Australian higher education.
There needs to be improvement; show me a system that doesn’t have issues. Australia should be proud of its universities and celebrate their successes. This year can be one of ideas exploration, of creativity in the solutions which can make the sector better without costing more, and of a rich dialogue within and beyond universities about why they exist and the good they do for society.
This article was from the QS Insights Magazine, Issue 1. Read the full edition.