A university career is no longer the best way to channel a fine mind

A friend of mine resigned from her university job in February 2024 just weeks before term started. She couldn’t face another year. She was old enough to retire but I had thought she might have a couple more years of teaching in her. The bureaucracy, the rules, lowering standards were too much. Another friend, an emeritus professor no less, saddened me when he confided he would not recommend a university career to someone starting out now. No longer was it the best way to channel a fine mind.

Mid-career colleagues in history are struggling to maintain their discipline in universities. Even with the welcome recommendation from Australian Universities Accord panel to scrap the Job-Ready Graduates Package, the humanities suffer from the persistent lean in universities towards professional training. While it’s hard to hear, as professor of history Kate Fullagar says, those colleagues cannot be precious:   

Don’t take a utilitarian angle and explain the economic knock-ons to cultural investment. Don’t take the high moral ground and screech that culture has intrinsic value. Don’t accept the label of handmaiden and simply assist science communication. Instead: do all these things.

So, yes, there is, as Graeme Turner points on in his 4 March article, What’s missing from the universities review – Pearls and Irritations (johnmenadue.com) a workforce issue in universities. I’d argue it’s more than an HR problem:  it points to a malaise in our knowledge society that no accord is going to fix unless it returns to the idea of education being about much more than just another commodity.

The Australian Universities Accord Final Report acknowledges that higher education providers need to improve capability and capacity of their workforce. Its recommendations are, however, all but silent on the matter of the VET workforce. Indeed, while championing a more integrated tertiary education sector, this report offers little hope for parity of esteem between universities and TAFEs, let alone other VET providers.

Jenny Dodd, the CEO of TAFE Directors Australia, valiantly promotes aspects of TAFE as ‘essential pieces in the Accord puzzle’. Some of these gain a mention in the Accord report. It also sets out the long list of problems that have stymied the 2008 Bradley vision of integration, problems that research in vocational education has repeatedly and forensically examined without effecting practical progress. Credit transfer, RPL, funding differences across the sectors, career advice, institutional divides and snobbery − all still unresolved because the system is not properly unified or funded. Take career guidance: vast amounts have been squandered on career websites to try to get people on the right vocational track. They are useless when the policy settings and funding regimes privilege the university pathway, whatever the student’s inclination and aptitude.

Perhaps the Australian Tertiary Education Commission will bring clout to tackling these wicked problems. Who the commissioners are will be critical. The report makes specific mention of a First Nations Commissioner, an Equity Commissioner and Regional Education Commissioner. Will one of the deputies, dare we even dream the chair, hail from the vocational education sector? Let’s hope so because the prevailing mindset privileges higher education and advice for reform still comes primarily from people who have little or no first-hand experience of the VET sector.  

Even then, there are big hurdles to overcome before we see any material change in Australia’s tertiary education system. Jason Clare, the minister of education, has identified the first hurdle to achieving greater equity:

Before we have any chance of getting more young people from poor families and from the regions into university, we need more to finish school.

And finishing with adequate levels of literacy and numeracy. Bridging courses are a band aid. The review report finds that enabling courses have not been effective and suggests new terminology: ‘preparatory’ courses. For those wishing to enter tertiary education from school, surely that’s where the preparation should be. Such courses certainly play a role in helping mature-age students who were not served well at school but wish to return to institutional learning in either vocational or higher education. New school graduates should not suffer the same setbacks.

Back to the people expected to deliver Australia’s future skills (yes, that utilitarian word appears 704 times in the report; knowledge 196 times). Much is said about casualisation in the higher education workforce. That’s a phenomenon in the VET workforce too. But the two things cannot be conflated. For a teacher of applied skills directly relevant to an employer, having a foot in both the teaching world and the industry is an advantage to the student. Industry currency is mandated. That doesn’t mean there are no problems in the VET workforce. There are not enough trainers; not enough specialist educators, for example in literacy and numeracy, deficits revealed over and over as causes for apprentice non-completion; not enough people able to convert their on-the-job expertise in innovation into the research and development the nation continues to cry out for.

I welcome this further attempt to build an education system that supports the diversity our country’s needs: diversity in types of teaching and learning, in ways of thinking, in more cost-effective institutions. The Accord report offers some solutions but to achieve fundamental change this round of reform must go further. It must be willing to challenge the nineteenth-century model that still dictates the educational hierarchy.

This article first appeared in Pearls and Irritations on 18 March 2024.

Image:  DARPA, https://goo.gl/kat7ws, CC0 Public Domain, https://goo.gl/m25gce

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