FRANCESCA BEDDIE. Tertiary education after COVID-19: part two

Are we finally seeing the end of the Dawkins era? If so, what next?

Since I wrote about capitalising on the changes in Australian education unleashed by COVID-19, the plight of the universities has become even more prominent in the news. Stephen Parker, emeritus professor, former Vice Chancellor of the University of Canberra and now National Sector Leader, Education at KPMG has called for an urgent commission of inquiry into the structure of the university sector. Readers of my articles will not be surprised that I agree with this suggestion, though its terms of reference should explicitly embrace the whole of tertiary education. Any such review needs to offer federal and state policy makers considered advice about how to reposition post-school education, training, and upskilling for at least a generation. As Parker says, it must include outsiders as well as representatives from across the system.

What should get started immediately is an evaluation of the remarkable initiatives underway to address elements of the COVID-19 crisis. This would give insights into how to do things differently and bypass entrenched institutional and cultural impediments to change. Take first the Australian Academy of Science’s Rapid Research Information Forum (RRIF), which has so quickly addressed the silos that have plagued research. Suddenly it has proved possible to bring together relevant multidisciplinary expertise to answer pressing questions about COVID-19, as they emerge. The RRIF’s reports demonstrate the value of synthesising knowledge as well as generating new knowledge. While produced quickly, they are still peer-reviewed and are written in language that is accessible and useful for policy makers.

No evaluation is needed to see that collaboration across disciplines, institutions and sectors is a force for innovation and productivity. That collaboration must extend across borders. Had Chinese and Australian researchers not made the COVID-19 genome freely available, the world would be much further away from developing a vaccine. The scientific efforts afoot across the globe are a beacon for international cooperation in education and research.

What does this signal for university reform? A renewed appreciation for pure scientific research as well as its practical applications? We should all hope so. Might it also suggest that the model of a generalist university, with a very large student body (domestic and international), will not suit Australia in the era of near-universal tertiary education? The hit to university finances this year has revealed much about their business models and raises questions about the place of the university in society. Are some more like private export industries than public educators?

Dr Parker and others have suggested there is a place for teaching-only institutions in the sector. Such places must still, in my view, be infused with the spirit of scholarship, even if they do not conduct basic research. While we may see a reduced number of public universities engaged in the scholarship of discovery, the knowledge economy demands that all tertiary students are equipped to integrate information from across disciplines and apply their knowledge in real-world scenarios. Equally, their teachers must also be scholars of their own practice and in their specialist disciplines. As the upheaval to business caused by COVID-19 has shown, to survive employers and employees need higher order critical thinking and problem-solving skills to cope with disruption. The non-university part of the system must be able to nurture the practical wisdom inherent in so many of its learners.

A third option in the post-COVID education landscape are institutions that vertically integrate broad occupational training and education in a particular field, for example, health, agriculture or advanced manufacturing. Such institutions would offer qualifications ranging from vocational certificates to the doctorate. Their focus would be on teaching and research relevant to their industries. They would employ ‘practical professors’ who have sound links to their professions; their research would be cutting edge. Students would have opportunities to move in and out of the workforce and higher learning. Such a structure has the potential to cater to a returning international student market and to start addressing some of the labour force and skills challenges COVID-19 has uncovered in front-line services.

In health, such integration already exists to some degree. Macquarie University’s health science centre, for example, brings together clinical care, research and learning. Macquarie also has Australia’s largest concentration of motor neuron disease (MND) researchers and an approach that provides MND patients with bespoke, multidisciplinary care, while supporting a translational research platform that uses tissue and genetic samples donated by patients and their families. Could the model be expanded to include other occupations — childcare, aged care, disability support services, nursing — to achieve even greater integration, as well as new pathways for learners and expanded research partnerships? Would such an institution have to have a university (or a TAFE) as its home or could it be a new kind of public-private, federal-state collaboration?

During COVID-19 questions of decentralisation have resurfaced. Tertiary education, R&D and innovation will be critical to making the regions vibrant and productive. This presents opportunities for regional universities but also TAFEs, whose physical infrastructure as well as its industry linkages, could be repurposed to support entrepreneurial hubs and start-up enterprises. Here the organisational principle would be defined by local industry needs, for example using smart devices for more efficient farming and water management; farm and business administration; food sciences; understanding digital supply chains and export markets; tourism. With the embrace of online delivery, short courses and micro-credentials, the tertiary system is being re-positioned in a way that can much better cater to learning requirements in the regions. What’s needed is a policy and funding framework to make these approaches attractive and prestigious. This should be easier now that living in a city seems a less desirable choice than even just a few months ago.

Francesca Beddie is a former general manager of research at the National Centre for Vocational Education Research. She and Linda Simon explored ways to futureproof VET in their 2017 paper VET applied research: driving VET’s role in the innovation system (NCVER).

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Francesca Beddie is a former diplomat who served in Jakarta, Moscow and Berlin. She is a professional historian and policy analyst, with an interest in tertiary education.

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