Why collaboration is key to the future of Australia’s higher education sector

By Ron Maxwell - CEO

Collaboration: It’s a buzzword across many industries, as both physical barriers and competitive ones are broken down in a bid to grow and innovate. Our business education programs teach the importance of it, yet it’s an area where our tertiary education sector seems to be lagging.

This sector plays a key role in our economy, and in many ways, determines the future for all of us. It’s long been argued, by both industry and education experts, that a collaborative higher education sector might just be the key Australia needs to navigate a digital future.

Currently, our schools, vocational education and training (VET) providers and universities are siloed, operating on entirely different public funding models, and this can exacerbate competition and stifle collaboration and innovation.

Recently, the Business Council of Australia called for an overhaul of the sector, that ultimately boils down to ensuring that the core focus returns to the learner. Moving toward a shared funding model could see institutions actively seek out collaboration opportunities, from the sharing of facilities to course pathways that increase opportunities for both students and industry.

Inconsistent funding can influence choice

As the focus becomes more and more about increasing student numbers to increase funding, rather than attracting the right students to the right courses, the perfect storm is brewing for our higher education sector.

I’ve talked before about how VET qualifications have long been viewed as the poor cousin, with parents and schools driving students towards university degrees under the misconception that this leads to higher incomes and more opportunity. In fact, in many industries, the opposite is true.

As universities lower entrance requirements to attract more students, and hence more funding, the number of graduates far outstrips job opportunities in many degree-qualified professions. Meanwhile, many of our key industries and trades are facing skill shortages as apprentice numbers decline, while funding to the VET sector is being cut to critical levels.

In a 2015 report on the VET sector around the globe, the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) found that inconsistent funding was an issue for the Australian sector, and noted that consistent funding is key to ensuring student choices are not distorted by the availability of funds.

This issue is highlighted with nursing studies, where prospective students have a choice of degree and VET qualification pathways. The best pathway should be driven by the student’s career interests and aspirations; however, students completing the university qualification can access up to six times the funding of a VET student, enticing students into the wrong courses and leaving skill gaps across our healthcare sector.

In my opinion, introducing a single tertiary funding model to replace the various models currently at play would both encourage collaboration and level the playing field. Enabling institutions to see past the funding battle would allow the focus to shift back to the learner and ensure we are doing the best for our students, industries, and the economy.

It doesn’t have to be either/or

Building nested courses and clearer articulation pathways between school, VET qualifications and university degrees could also benefit individual students and our industries. Under the current system, school leavers are typically asked to make a choice between VET or university, but for some qualifications, a clear pathway between the two could be the answer.

Students could start with a VET qualification, which prepares them immediately for the workforce. Once qualified, students would have the option to continue on to a degree with some articulation credits for subjects completed. This way, there are both clear exit points and opportunities for further study. Imagine the benefits of our uni students already being qualified to work in certain areas of their chosen industry, earning money and building real-world experience while studying.   For industries like healthcare, which is facing significant skill shortages, this would be a massive win.

Physical resources could be shared too

At many of our large institutions, publicly-funded facilities – training spaces, technology etc. - are sitting empty while students and faculty are on semester breaks. Meanwhile, we have community-based training providers scrounging for affordable space and quality resources.  

A collaborative, shared funding model could see these resources allocated better across communities, giving community organisations access to these facilities when they aren’t in use by the institution. This would enrich community learning, while also maximising the return on investment for Australian tax payers.

It can be done

Taking collaboration from theory to practice is a challenge for every industry, and higher education is no exception. Integrating the different models into a single tertiary funding model is a key step in driving collaboration across the sector. It will take dedication from providers, who will need to shift from a win/loss mindset to a truly collaborative one, and considerable political foresight from our federal and state governments, but I believe it can be done.

Our schools, VET providers, and universities working together could be a win for us all, maximizing public investment in education and ensuring we maintain a strong, healthy economy into the future.