Companies Must Support and Guide Education Sector

The Australian

By Michael Andrew
Chairman, former BCA Education, Skills and Innovation Task Force

Australia’s higher education sector makes a vital contribution to maintaining a strong and productive economy. But this sector can make an even greater contribution to productivity and economic growth into the future. It can do this through a combination of increased participation, including participation by students from disadvantaged backgrounds, together with high-quality and relevant teaching provided to all students, both domestic and international.

What will be crucial to achieving this is to make sure that we do not simply expect the sector to do all of this on its own. Australia’s business community needs to invest more of its expertise, time and resources in higher education. Because this issue is critical to our future competitiveness, we must ensure that we contribute to genuine partnerships between business and institutions to find solutions to our current and emerging workforce requirements.

Business and public sector employers have the depth of understanding about current and emerging requirements in the workplace that can make an enormous difference to the development and preparation of students for their future careers. There are a number of outstanding partnerships between business and higher education in Australia that we can use as examples and models.

High-quality teaching that is relevant to the workplace enables students to gain the knowledge, technical skills and broader capabilities that allow them to make an effective contribution to innovation in their future places of work. With this in mind, the Business Council of Australia (BCA) this week released a paper titled Lifting the Quality of Teaching and Learning in Higher Education. The paper highlights the fact that as an open economy, more of Australia’s workplaces are now linked to markets in Asia and across the world, and innovation capabilities will be increasingly important to remain competitive.

The Productivity Commission has also highlighted the fact that people contribute to innovation through continual learning, trying new things and responding to the requirements of customers.

In this context, the ability to work well as a member of a team, and cross-cultural capabilities are critical to being effective in the workplace. People draw on these capabilities to contribute to the development of new products and services, and to make the sorts of changes within an organisation that create new value and more highly skilled jobs.

Business is not calling for a narrow approach to higher education. The ability of people to think independently, yet to also work effectively with others by establishing positive relationships is essential for business innovation, and future productivity and growth in the Australian economy. These broader attributes should also include international capabilities. The value that business derives from international capabilities means that we have a strategic interest in Australia’s international education industry.

Although the education of international students by Australian universities, colleges and training institutions has been a success story, it is now facing the challenge of a sharp decline in student numbers. Turning around this decline will require, in part, a focus on quality.

With these developments in mind, the BCA, in the paper released this week, has identified four priorities designed to make sure that the quality of outcomes continues to be central to our higher education system.

The first priority is to reward effective teaching and learning outcomes through measures that include:

  • the further development of performance funding arrangements;
  • examining the feasibility of benchmarking teaching and learning; and
  • encouraging professional development for academic teachers in international capabilities.

Our second priority is for business to increase its engagement with institutions through the provision of advice on curriculums, greater specialisation by institutions and the creation of centres of excellence.

The BCA’s third priority is to establish a comprehensive strategy for international education, including a student-visa program that is internationally competitive, and incentives for international students to improve their English language proficiency.

Our final priority is to develop a demand-driven system responsive to business, industry and the community, as well as students.

Achieving these priorities will also require consideration of funding models and governance of higher education. Business and government must work with higher education to ensure that we achieve the combination of greater participation and ongoing improvement in the quality and relevance of the teaching provided to students. If we can accomplish this goal, it will lay the foundation for our economic success over the next 25 years.