Política australiana para la educación superior por A lex Usher
Marzo 22, 2024

Are We Out of Ideas?

I was prepping yesterday for my podcast interview with Australian higher education expert Andrew Norton on the subject of the Australian Universities’ Accord (watch for it a week tomorrow) and while reading the report—which is a competent one, as these things go—it occurred to me: my God, this is boring. Used to be you could count on the Australians to come up with at least one or two cool ideas that would make you think” “really? We can do that?” Income-contingent loans, say. Or lifelong learning accounts. Or fully demand-driven funding.

But this report? Pretty much crickets. The new ideas that are given a hearing here are fairly half-baked. And then I thought: maybe the sector as a whole is just running out of ideas.

The Universities’ Accord (full document here, executive summary here) is meant to be a long-term plan for Australian higher education—a blueprint for the sector out to 2050 or so. It’s worth reading, if only for a sense of how policies get made in countries where the policy-development process isn’t totally dysfunctional the way it is up here in Canada (Consultations! In plain view of the public! Interim reports to gauge public reaction and get expert feedback! Things no government up here has done in higher education in well over a decade!).

Just to give you a flavour of what’s in there:

  1. The “Big Idea” around which much of the document is based is…setting an ambitious target (80%) for post-secondary attainment rates. Not a bad idea, by any means, but hardly a new one. See here for my interview with Coutney Brown of the Lumina Foundation, which describes how 49 out of 50 US states now have attainment goals).
  2. The Big Idea in research is…paying for the full Indirect Costs of Research (where have I heard that before? Oh yeah, everywhere. Always) and setting up a “National Challenges” fund (wasn’t a new idea when this Bouchard Commission suggested something similar up here in Canada last year).
  3. The big idea in student assistance is…more of it….with a slightly less goofy formula for income-contingent repayment of student contributions.
  4. The big idea for system co-ordination is…more of it…via a new “Tertiary Commission,” an intermediary with such extensive powers that it’s really not clear what the Department of Education will be left to do. It’s also unclear how much autonomy will be left to institutions.

To the extent that there are new ideas, they are pretty weak. For instance:

  1. Setting program fees in line with expected lifetime earnings—thus future doctors pay higher fees than future childcare workers, etc. A better idea than the current policy adopted during COVID (set fees to punish students interested in the humanities), but not radically different from the three-tier fee system that was in place between 1996 and 2020.
  2. A “National Regional University” to improve higher education in rural areas. Maybe? Sounds deeply half-baked to me. I mean, I get that the central challenge of rural higher education is the diseconomy of lack of scale, but I am not sure that super-sizing and centralizing its administration is the answer. You’d have thought that the recent abandonment of a project to create something similar for vocational education system in neighbouring New Zealand would have sent up some red flags, but apparently no.
  3. A “Future Fund” for the creation of new higher education infrastructure. The innovation here is that the government would, essentially, require contributions to the fund from all institutions in proportion to their means and then dish it out to institutions on the basis of their needs. Which, if you give it a moment’s thought, means taxing institutions which get a lot of money from international students and handing it to institutions that don’t (the intent to “tax international students” was clearer in the interim report, this is a somewhat watered-down phrasing).

It’s…underwhelming.

None of this is to pass judgement on the Accord, per se. Not all good ideas need be new ones: old ideas, properly and judiciously applied, will do just fine. But their absence is still striking. In the 1990s and early 2000s, around the world, you had a lot of new ideas about how to fund universities either publicly (performance-based funding, performance-based contracts) or privately (various combinations of fees and loans/grants), and how to govern and steer them. And all of that new thinking about how to find and manage at the system level is just…gone.

Here’s my hypothesis about what’s going on: the explosion of system-level thinking and policy innovation was actually a delayed reaction to the massification of higher education across the west, which for the most part occurred in the 1970s and 1980s. Simply put, the way the system was run was two decades out of whack with reality, and needed to be put right. But that’s done now: maybe not to everyone’s satisfaction, but it’s done. The system hasn’t evolved enough to require much more system-level tinkering. It might require more money, but that’s a different and much less complicated story.

Right now, all the new ideas are actually happening inside universities: what sorts of programs and certifications to offer, how to add revenue sources, how to manage leaner institutions, etc. And about these things, external policy commissions like the Accord— which by nature focus on system-level issues—can’t say very much because these questions are best solved in a decentralized manner. The only system-level question left (again, bar the question of total funding levels, which while crucial is from a policy perspective fairly trivial) is how governments can manage the twin tasks of ensuring quality provision while at the same time getting the hell out of the way of institutional innovation.

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