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Source: The Conversation (Au and NZ) – By Gwilym Croucher, Associate Professor, Melbourne Centre for the Study of Higher Education, The University of Melbourne

There is no doubt the federal government has big ambitions for the Universities Accord. Set up last November, the interim report was made public on Wednesday.

This is the first broad review of higher education since the 2008 Bradley Review. If the government’s aspirations are met, it could mean the most significant changes to Australian higher education in a generation.

The interim report covers many different issues, from student fees to governance, teaching, international students, student wellbeing and research.

But the interim report also asks us to think more broadly about the entire education system post-high school. This includes both vocational education and training (VET) providers (such as TAFE) and universities. It wants to see the whole tertiary education “pursue greater opportunities for alignment and collaboration”.

Why is this important? And how can this be done?

What does ‘alignment’ and ‘collaboration’ mean here?

When politicians and education commentators talk about the university and vocational sectors collaborating more, this can mean many different things.

This can include creating pathways between vocational and higher education, including how prior study in each is recognised.

It could also include universities, vocational education and training providers and employers collaborating in the design and delivery of their courses. It can also means students have the right incentives at every stage of their lives to connect with the type of education that is right for them at the time.

Attempts to better integrate post-secondary education are not new – and there have been effort since at least the time of former education minster John Dawkins in the 1980s.

But progress has been slow, with VET largely under the purview of state government while higher education is largely funded federally.

Why is this important?

If university and vocational education systems work together more, we will have a more flexible and more functional education system.

The report states that over the next two decades Australian workers will change jobs an estimated 2.4 times and it is estimated tasks within Australian jobs will change by 18% every decade. Even if these estimates prove wrong, there is broad recognition that updating skills is something workers will need to do over their working lives.

As the report notes, “many students move between the higher education and vocational education sectors during their lifetime”.

Vocational education can be an entry pathway into higher education. Or people will complement their higher education with job-specific skills from vocational education.

These transitions should be as seamless as possible.

Changing educational landscape worldwide

Any collaboration will occur against a backdrop of big changes coming to post-secondary education all around the world.

Just before the pandemic, global enrolments in higher education and higher vocational education were estimated at more than 200 million people. Around two-thirds of these students were in developing or recently developed countries. Overall, it is estimated global higher education and upper vocational education has grown by more than 50% in the past 20 years.

It is argued this growth is driven by the expansion of higher education in developing countries, particularly India. This means the locus of higher education will increasingly move away from wealthy countries.

Since 2011, the number of university students in wealthy countries has plateaued and, in some cases, even declined. One of the reasons for this is demographic changes, as large proportion of the populations in many wealthy countries age.

For Australia, like other countries, this presents many challenges, not least because there will be less people of working age. This only increases the importance of ensuring post-school education delivers the skills and workers our society and economy need.

What is being proposed?

The report calls for a conversation about making it easier for students to move between vocational education and university settings as well as more consistency around how prior learning is credited and recognised.

Rules can be a challenge here, especially where vocational courses are industry specific. The government is yet to fully respond to a 2019 review of the Australian Qualifications Framework, which remains an important piece of the puzzle.

The accord interim report proposes extending federal funding and HELP loans beyond the universities to TAFEs, to provide financial support to some of their programs.

It also suggests “Cooperative Skills Centres”, where universities and vocational education providers would work together as “joint ventures for fast skilling up in areas of urgent industry need”.

On top of this, it asks whether there should be a requirement (maybe a regulation) for the two sectors to work more together.

This suggests a more heavy-handed approach could be on the table, and given the slow progress in aligning higher education and VET it might be an attractive option to some.

Read more:
The National Skills Agreement needs time in the policy spotlight and it must include these 3 things

‘Must adapt’

So far, the accord process is picking up on a significant opportunity here for Australia – to create a more integrated system for post-high school education. As the report notes:

The tertiary sector must adapt to facilitate growth in lifelong learning.

Responses to the interim report are due in September, with a final report expected in December.

Read more:
The universities accord could see the most significant changes to Australian unis in a generation

The Conversation

Gwilym Croucher does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.

ref. Many Australians will need to study at both TAFE and uni: how do we get the two systems working together? –