Higher Education Reforms Deserve Support: Article by Jennifer Westacott in The Australian

This opinion article by BCA Chief Executive Jennifer Westacott was published in The Australian on 18 October under the title ‘Nation Should Back Education Reforms.’

Education is fundamentally important to Australia’s future prosperity. It provides people with the skills and knowledge to achieve their potential and opportunities to change their lives for the better.

Australia should aspire to make post-school education available to all, no matter at what stage in their lives they’re at.

But education is about more than providing opportunities for individuals. It’s a prerequisite for building and maintaining an appropriately capable, skilled and innovative workforce to keep the Australian economy competitive in a vastly more complex and competitive world.

It is only through education that our people can keep up with changing technology, innovate and create the jobs of the future.

Education is also our fourth-largest export industry. Attracting people from around the world to study in Australia, as well as generating demand for our education products in other countries, is a major comparative advantage for Australia but we have to work to nurture this advantage in the face of increased competition from around the world.

We need an education sector that is dynamic and diverse, that encourages providers to focus on their strengths, to differentiate and specialise. We need a sector that is equipped to deliver products and services that are needed, on a globally competitive basis.

Our education sector should value research and teaching equally. It must value and deliver both vocational and academic learning in a way that is relevant to students and the jobs of the future.

To achieve all of this, we need education policies that ensure the education sector is robust, sustainable and geared towards the needs of tomorrow as well as today.

This makes reform of our current education system an imperative for Australia. We need politicians of all parties to recognise that change is necessary and that it has to be strategic, long-term and ongoing to enable continuous improvement and adaptation.

We cannot afford for education reform to become a divisive, ideological issue with no continuity from one government to the next. The sector will not thrive and prosper if politicians cannot find common ground about a vision for education.

Our economy, jobs and opportunities for individual Australians will suffer as a result.

Whatever sector or perspective we come from, we need to ask ourselves whether the federal government’s proposed reform package delivers on the test of good reform. What is the common ground our elected representatives in the federal parliament must agree on if they genuinely care about Australia’s long-term national interest?

First and most important, there must be common ground around opening up post-Year 12 education to as many people as possible.

Over the past 40 years, we have much to be proud of in working co-operatively to achieve this objective.

The effort began with the Hawke government’s introduction of HECS in 1989. It continued in 2012 when the Gillard government allowed public universities to enrol as many government-funded students as they wished into bachelor degrees.

The current government’s proposed reforms should be seen as the next step. They extend the previous government’s reform to all higher education providers, and their courses at diploma, advanced diploma and associate diploma level.

This means more access and more choice for students and should be fully supported by all parliamentarians.

Second, there should be common ground on making sure people are able to participate in education regardless of their financial background.

The government’s proposed reforms maintain the HECS scheme. All students can access a loan and will not pay any money upfront. The reforms make HECS fairer by removing loan fees that at present apply to some students.

We believe it is also important that the repayment of debt does not disadvantage people on lower incomes or women who take time out from the workforce. For this reason, we believe the current reform proposal for the indexation rate should be reconsidered by the government to help achieve common ground.

Third, there should be common ground around the reality that a mass tertiary education system cannot be paid for by government alone. Opening up the system to more students means a greater overall cost to government. The trade-off for expanding the system has to be the individual student paying a greater share of the cost.

The extent of the changes to the rate the government will pay providers is understandably contestable. However, the principle of a shared cost is an existing bipartisan principle which should continue to be fully supported by all parties.

Fourth, there should be common ground around the fact that the higher education market cannot continue as a closed market.

The introduction of competition and deregulation are the next logical steps on the reform agenda, and are an integral part of the government’s reform package.

The debate isn’t about whether to open the market; what is crucial is the design of the market.

The closed nature of the higher education market means the features of a well-operating market –  such as good information, clear price signals and a relatively level playing field – are not yet established.

The transition to a more open market needs to be carefully managed so these features become embedded in the sector. We encourage the government to be open to this.

The fifth and final area for common ground should be an agreement that our education sector will have a broad constituency.

A mass tertiary education system will need to service students from different backgrounds with different needs. It will play different roles in different parts of the country, servicing metropolitan, regional and remote communities.

It will require a diversity of providers in both their mission and geographic location, and the government should consider how to ensure its reform package encourages this diversity to flourish.

There is no doubt that the government’s reform package carries risk. Brave, necessary reform always does.

We will continue to advocate for safeguards and urge the government to negotiate to avoid unintended consequences.

Our message to the parliament is that continuous improvement in our education sector must not be blocked or made excessively difficult.

There is much in the government’s education package which can and should unite rather than divide a parliament that is focused on the best outcomes for the nation.

We urge all senators to work with the government on this package to ensure that the momentum for much-needed reform is not lost, and that we build the education sector our country needs.