Realising potential: solving Australia’s tertiary education challenge

Higher education Vocational education and training Universities Education Australia

This report closely examines Australia's tertiary education system, which includes all post-secondary education arrangements. It sets the challenge to create an effective education and training system that is both more coherent and more connected. Importantly, it makes a number of recommendations for policy makers including a call for the development of a longer-term vision and policy framework for tertiary education rather than a reliance on short-term reviews of elements of the system.

Tertiary education is vitally important to Australian society and the economy. From an industry perspective the sectors within tertiary education provide both the skilled and qualified entrants to the workforce as well as the re-skilling or up-skilling of the existing workforce. If the Australian economy is to continue to prosper and remain internationally competitive, it is vital to have access to a highly skilled and qualified workforce. Indeed, with the rapid advance of technology and digitalisation, a higher level of skills for the workforce is more important than ever.

This statement highlights that we have now entered an era of mass tertiary education and the achievement of higher level qualifications. Today, 85 per cent of young people complete secondary education and most proceed to some form of tertiary education. In the decade to 2015 the proportion of the workforce without post-school qualifications fell from 42 to 32 per cent. There has been significant expansion of participation in the higher education sector and Australia is very close to achieving the Bradley Review target of 40 per cent of 25 to 34 year-olds having a degree by 2020. The VET sector is the largest education sector with over 4.2 million students.

Despite this impressive growth in recent decades, the sectors are beset with a range of challenges. Chief among these is the development of a binary system characterised by seriously unbalanced participation between the sectors. The recent dramatic falls in VET participation have also been accompanied by declining funding levels which seriously jeopardise the sector.

The education and training landscape needs to be broadened to include institutional differentiation that takes account of diverse student needs. And given the reality of rapidly changing workplaces and the need for agile skill development, there needs to be a much more effective system of learner mobility and recognition between institutions and sectors.

There is a lack of overall policy direction and governance of the system. Consideration needs to be given to the formation of a central and independent coordinating agency to provide common approaches across the sectors and levels of government. While more effective methods of governance require more than addressing funding levels, a more equitable funding strategy needs to be developed. The VET sector is in need of immediate attention in this area. In this context, demand-driven funding models need to be retained but improved to be more equitable than current practice.

The current situation concerning student loans is discriminatory and unacceptable. A way needs to be found to introduce a loans scheme with common characteristics across the sectors, initially for diploma level courses and above.

In the area of regulation, a more effective approach is required to strengthen the quality of education and training provision. Tertiary Education Quality and Standards Agency (TEQSA) and Australian Skills Quality Authority (ASQA) should be maintained while developing common or joint functionality in particular areas to strengthen national consistency. Work based learning is becoming increasingly important and more innovative ways need to be found in both sectors to expand the participation of industry in the delivery of tertiary qualifications.

The review of the Australian Qualifications Framework is timely as this provides a key opportunity to reconsider whether our current qualifications structure is adequately meeting our needs into the future.

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