Home | Policy & Reform | We’re waiting for a Commission: Sector leaders
Professor Kent Anderson (second from the left) on the vice-chancellor panel at the HEDx event. Picture: Erin Morley

We’re waiting for a Commission: Sector leaders

Thursday's Changing Higher Education for Good HEDx conference held panels and hosted discussions between university leaders and higher education bodies to discuss how the Accord's proposed reforms are going to come to fruition.

Amidst concerns about decreasing domestic enrolments at a time of critical skills shortage, restricting of international student enrolments, and heightening student dissatisfaction, there were lively debates and solutions proposed.

Should universities wait for a commission?

One of the recommendations of the Accord was to establish the Australian Tertiary Education Commission (ATEC). A number of university leaders were in agreement, believing it is a required first step towards university policy reform agreements.

If a tertiary commission was to go ahead, it's a reform that would have to be government approved, in the same way as the recently green-lit student ombudsman.

One of the roles of the proposed commission would be to protect the sector reforms, and shepherd them through any successive changes of government; acting as a "buffer" for the 47 Accord recommendations, some of which are expected to take 25 years to implement.

Chair of Universities Australia (UA) David Lloyd addressed the conference on this issue, saying that there had been enough discussion about ATEC and now it was time to act.

"[ATEC's] proposed establishment is perhaps the most urgent consultation that's needed in all of the items that are in the final report," he said.

"Most, if not all, of the recommendations in the final report hang off the establishment of the ATEC.

"Now that we have the [Accord] report, funnily enough, we're still doing a lot of talking.

"As a sector, I think it's pretty safe to say that our voice has been heard. I have to be honest, for my part, I'm looking forward to doing less talking and just getting on with it."

Although, he added, he still has many questions about what a commission would look like.

"How big will it be? How far will its powers extend? Will it add value or will it add another layer of red tape and bureaucracy? How would it differ from the functions already within the Department of Education?" he asked.

"Does it make sense for [the Tertiary Education Quality and Standards Agency] and the [Australian Research Council] to sit within an ATEC structure? Is it going to be a permanent body? Is it going to have a finite lifespan? I could go on, there's so many unknowns in this."

Other leaders were of the opinion that a commission might slow reform down, adding unnecessary government processes at a time when universities need to act quickly to address the nation's need to grow a university educated future workforce.

Deputy vice-chancellor of the University of Newcastle Professor Kent Anderson pointed out the Accord process has already been relatively slow, noting that universities 'didn't have to do any policy reform' during the 18-month Accord consultation period.

Of the process he said: "Then [the government] said, 'Well, we're not going to tell anyone what it says for another three months."

"Then they say, 'Oh, well, we can't really do anything until we get this new committee together to look at what we might do.'

"And then they really can't do anything because it's talking about 2050. And so we need three or four governments.'"

Chief executive of the Victorian Academy of Teaching and Leadership Professor Marcia Devlin urged universities to start making changes to their teaching practices and policies now.

"I think we could all do more, and we could all realise the power that we have. There is no 'other'," she said.

"People used to come to me all the time when I was [a deputy vice-chancellor] and say, 'The university needs to do this, and the university needs to do that, and the university needs to do the other.'

"And I [would say], 'Well, who are you talking about? You are the university. I am the university.'"

Student wants vs university priorities

Chief executive of digital career consultant FourthRev Omar de Silva pointed out universities could be missing enrolments because a number of prospective students believe that going to university won't necessarily give them a better career outcome.

"[University research is] all important work, but it's not what the average student's thinking about," he said.

"Many people don't understand that that's not necessarily the university's priority number one, or even two or three, and I think that that creates more challenge."

Ed-tech start-ups are already fighting the equity battle

Overall, discussions shone a light on the importance of student experience, including international student experience, with an understanding that if university enrolments and education outcomes are to improve, attitudes towards and experiences of education overall needs to be more positive.

Chief executive of youth career advice website Year13 Will Stubley said many students are fearful of university, especially those from equity groups; cohorts the Accord says unis need to attract in order to double the number of university-qualified workers by 2050.

Year13 helps year 12 students explore and find a way into higher education through both mainstream and alternative channels.

Mr Stubley said his year 12 surveys show that year on year, more school leavers want to apply to university, but don't because of confusion or a lack of confidence.

"They don't think they're good enough," he said.

"The metric that always rates highest for our surveys is students have a fear of the future, and then you go a little bit deeper on that, and, unfortunately, the ATAR is a massive reason for that."

Mr Stubley explained universities, and start-ups like Year13, need to figure out how to decrease social, intellectual and administrative barriers to university if school leavers are to become more confident in applying.

"If you can deal with that barrier and then [implement] stepping stones - like, you can just get this unit or this skill as an entry point - that's the bridge to get them into higher levels of education." he said.

"It's actually a social issue which provides economic benefit."

Timothy Rennick, student success leader at Georgia State University (GSU) in the US, addressed the Universities Australia Solutions Summit in February, and told how GSU was able to cultivate a sense of belonging for disadvantaged students and break down bureaucratic administrative processes, both issues which are identified as barriers for equity groups getting to university.

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