Australian universities are set for a widespread review that could result in the biggest overhaul of higher education since the Dawkins reforms of the late 1980s.

The federal government review, to produce the Australian Universities Accord, is expected to begin in earnest as universities reopen for the 2023 academic year.

The government is promoting the accord’s design as a way of rethinking higher education’s modern-day purpose, along with the type of policy settings required to achieve that purpose.

The current higher education system is widely recognised as a product of the leadership provided by former Labor politician John Dawkins, who served as for employment, education and training minister from 1987 until 1991.

During this time, free university tuition came to an end and was replaced by the Higher Education Contribution Scheme (HECS), vice-chancellors became CEOs, and smaller institutions were merged into new or existing universities.

Mr Dawkins was also credited for transforming what was then an elite education system into mass education.

Creating an Australian Universities Accord is considered by many as an overdue (but rare) opportunity to undertake a holistic rethink and review of the sector.

In a media release late last year, Education Minister Jason Clare said the accord was: “[A]n opportunity to look at everything from funding and access, to affordability, transparency, regulation, employment conditions and how higher education and vocational education and training can and should work together.”

The review’s terms of reference extend to examination of how higher education can best meet the country’s knowledge and skills needs, and can boost enrolments for Indigenous people, people with disability, and rural and regional students. 

Student fees and government contributions, workplace relations settings with universities, the impact of COVID-19 on higher education, and the role of international students in Australia have also been identified as key areas to be put under the microscope.

And the terms of reference will enable a thorough probe of the country’s research system, which will mesh with an existing review of the Australian Research Council.

Former University of Adelaide vice-chancellor Mary O’Kane will head a panel of experts responsible for the development of the accord.   

Western Sydney University vice-chancellor Barney Glover, Macquarie Group chief executive Shemara Wikramanayake, former deputy Labor leader Jenny Macklin, Indigenous academic Larissa Behrendt, and former Nationals minister Fiona Nash will join Professor O’Kane on the panel.

A large reference group will provide advice to the panelists. The Australian Chamber of Commerce and Industry, the Business Council of Australia and the Council of Small Business Organisations Australia are among those that will represent the business community at the reference group table.

The panel is expected to provide an interim report on key actions at the end of June this year, with a final report to be delivered by December 2023.

As the new academic year begins, the panel will review 180 stakeholder submissions, which formed part of an initial consultation process designed to flesh out priorities for review.

Many in higher education will see the Universities Accord as a way of securing greater funding for the sector. 

Yet the Albanese government is unlikely to commit to increasing funding to any large extent. If anything, it will do what governments of the past have done when faced with review recommendations:  move pots of money around to better reflect the government’s priorities.

Yet, the accord though does have a particularly important role: to rebuild vital relationships by establishing a common purpose for Australian universities. 

In recent years, the absence of a shared purpose has meant relationships in higher education have been fractious.

There’s a pressing need to restore better working relationships between university staff and management, which many in higher education believe have reached an all-time low.  

There’s also some work to do with students. Those with spiralling tuition fee debts are increasingly questioning the return on their investment. 

It’s also true that redefining and rebuilding an understanding of what universities are about would help to secure better engagement with the community.

Much is at stake. Despite the many successes of Australian universities, failure to reunite key stakeholders through a common purpose, and a further deterioration of those relationships, will put the sector at risk of being an architect of its own demise.

Professor Gary Martin is chief executive officer at the Australian Institute of Management WA


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