Look back. Policy and the higher education sector have had an active history over the last four decades. To make tertiary education more accessible, the Whitlam Government abolished university fees in 1974. Fifteen years later the Hawke Government started to reintroduce fees to balance out the increasing participation rate. From here we start to see retractions and changes from policy-makers that inevitably start to make tertiary education more expensive and less accessible. More recently in 2017, University funding was reduced by 2.5%. Getting the funding mix right to achieve the required outcomes is clearly something the Government is continually revisiting.
It’s little wonder then that Universities looked to international students to help create some surety in their forward planning and funding pipeline. They flexed in response to domestic constraints and by 2015, the proportion of international students in Australian higher education was 17.3%, far exceeding the OECD average of 6.7%. This wasn’t just an open door policy – our reputation for excellence in higher education is deserved and hard-earned. The demand was there, and we met it.
At the same time funding and student mix fluctuates, we also see some interesting trends in the courses most in demand at our tertiary education institutions. The enrolment data from the Department of Education between 1989 and 2015 is quite revealing in terms of how our higher education sector has evolved over time, as our economy has changed.
In 2021 we have come to a fork in the road – a defining moment – for tertiary education and skills for a “reimagined” Australia post COVID.
Borders are closed
Even if our vaccination program had rolled out as planned, that would not be immediately followed by the reopening of borders. Therefore international students and skilled workers will not be entering the country in the same numbers as before, in the short to medium term. We need to look inwards.
We need new skills
A singular policy initiative from the October 2020 Budget was the Modern Manufacturing Initiative – a refocus of Australia’s economy towards self-sufficiency, and increased capability and commerciality in the manufacturing space. This may help to encourage growth in onshore manufacturing, in strategically important areas, with ever-greater reliance on automation, data and artificial intelligence.
This goes well beyond just the MMI. Technology and cyber skills have been identified by the new National Skills Commission as one of the top 25 skills in future demand. This impacts all of us, and will need focus from primary school right through to higher and further education.
The A in STEAM is missing
The Government is investing in STEM – Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics. But the A in STEAM is essential to pull the threads together – for creative and critical thinking, problem solving, innovation and incubation. These so-called “soft-skills” are what modern business needs to bring our modern manufacturing vision to life and sell Australia to the world.
While STEM courses are more accessible than before, conversely there is now reduced support for many humanities subjects, including the Arts. We hope there will be softening of policy to ensure that our industries have strong pipeline of creative thinkers and problem solvers, from a wide range of disciplines.
A growing role for micro-credentials
Our higher education institutions are also the funnel through which we can upskill the current workforce. There are more than 13 million of us already actively participating in a range of careers. The jobs we originally trained for may not exist in future, and those that do exist, will be radically transformed as our economy advances and becomes increasingly digital. We must support our workforce to participate in the economy – and one way we can do this is through greater use of micro-credentials.
They are not new – but they are not fully embedded in our formal education system either. I expect that we will see more “mature age” students looking to supplement their learning with new digital skills. Micro-credentials may be suited to scalable online delivery. With the right set-up and course material, our education system can provide learning pathways to anyone around Australia – and the world?