A chief advisor on higher education?

Dec 11, 2022
Management and business education concept. computer screen.

Australia has a Chief Scientist (as well as a Chief Economist, and Chief Meteorologist), why not something similar for higher education?

I would like to make the case for the creation of a post for independent policy advice for higher education – Chief Educationist does not sound quite right, so how about Chief Advisor on Higher Education?

There are many problems with the provision of higher education globally, and the sector in Australia is in need of reform. I have described some of the main problems elsewhere, and offered some suggestions in a recent article in Pearls and Irritations. The current Government has accepted the need for reform and has established a Universities Accord to ‘..build a long-term plan for Australia’s higher education system’. It is possible the Accord will actually lead to changes and the higher education sector will accept them. Nevertheless, a number of problems are likely to remain and there will be a need for continuing independent advice about the development and evaluation of evidence based policy.

But from where is this independent advice to come? Who is able to identify and advocate for the real societal needs to be met by the higher education sector?

Universities are represented by a number of peak bodies to advocate for their part of the sector, often in competition with other parts of the sector. These include the Group of 8, the Regional Universities Network, The Australian Technology Network of Universities, Innovative Research Universities and Open Universities Australia. Universities Australia represents all 39 universities and ‘..advocate[s] for the vast social, economic and cultural value of higher education and research to Australia and the world’. Those working in universities also have a national union to advocate for them, as do students. So there is no shortage of advocacy.

Advocacy is aimed mainly at politicians, who are also advised by the Federal Department of Education which provides ‘…advice to our Ministers and effectively implement Government policies and programs’. In doing so, the Department draws ‘on the best available research, evidence and data and we work collaboratively with industry, stakeholders, state and territory governments, and other Australian Government agencies’. There are also regulatory quality assurance bodies for both the vocational and higher education sectors.

One of the main problems with the sector is that the current business and management model leads to competition between and within universities rather than collaboration. Advocacy from different parts of the sector needs to be put through an independent filter.

Universities contain many excellent and committed academics, and high quality educational research is performed and published. The Australian Research Council funded 298 projects in the field of education between 2011 and 2022 and I am sure some of this research is aimed at educational policy, and some of the results do get turned into policy. However, where is the oversight about what are the research needs and the systematic reviews that are required for policy generation? Is there a systematic scheme for the evaluation of educational policy and its outcomes?

How do innovative ideas find an outlet for consideration to become incorporated into policy, particularly if the idea crosses departmental boundaries or comes from outside the sector? My own recent experience relates to a proposal for a Network of Global Online Learning to encourage Australian universities to pay more attention to global inequalities in access to higher education. There seems no easy way to gain attention for the idea which crosses departmental boundaries. A number of innovations and opportunities for higher education may come from outside the sector, such as IT infrastructure for distributed and collaborative education and research.

A Chief Advisor on Higher Education would be tasked with taking an independent approach to assessing societal needs, reviewing evidence, encouraging evaluation, making recommendations on filling gaps in education research, and being a conduit for innovations. This would be an advisory not implementary role, and would also advocate for change to the sector itself and more broadly. Universities are unhappy places with disaffected academics, and the presence of an independent voice could make a difference.

States and Territories have Education Officers for school education, but the closest equivalent to this proposal would appear to be the Federal Government’s Chief Scientist. This is the role as defined on the website ‘Australia’s Chief Scientist provides authoritative and independent science advice on whole-of-Government science and technology priorities, to ensure the best evidence informs Government decision-making. The Chief Scientist works with the scientific community, research sector, government and industry, both in Australia and internationally, to provide this advice.’ There would seem to be parallel needs for such a role in higher education. An overview of the activities of Dr Alan Finkel the previous Chief Scientist, shows him leading a number of independent reviews and championing international and community engagement and various technologic innovations such as artificial intelligence and response to climate change. The current Chief Scientist is similarly involved in a number of these issues, and is particularly active in the promotion of Open Science. Each of these issues would have relevance to higher education.

I am not in favour of increasing bureaucracy, and I am remote from Government and don’t want to be making suggestions on the way that a Government department might organise itself. I also don’t want to suggest that this idea will solve all the problems facing the higher education sector. However, the creation of an independent voice for evidence based advice on higher education policy would seem to be an idea worth exploring.

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