Monday, January 12, 2009

Progress on post-school pathways

Despite a few flaws and omissions, the Bradley review is a step in the right direction, writes Gregor Ramsey F ever there were a need to demon-strate the case for a permanent body to advise governments on post-school education, the Bradley review has done the job. Its scope and the range of mailers that need a fix give some idea of how the system has been allowed to languish since the Dawkins reforms of two decades ago. The review is forward looking, balanced, powerfully argued on the basis of evidence and comprehensive.

The important question is how the Department of Education, Employment and Workplace Relatiuns bureaucracy will deal with the advice and how long it will take to respond.

The recommendations are very much a package that connects the demand for a more highly skilled workforce; the needs of students, particularly in rural and regional areas; issues of quality and transparency; funding and its allocation; and the requirements of a system for Australia in the 21st century.

Universities have their definition tightened and a system of accreditation imposed to guarantee quality of outcome. There is a limiting of the "let a hundred flowers bloom" approach to research, with universities expected to build their research strengths in a planned way according to specific criteria.

Both are moves that have been too long coming. Less welcome is another categorisation of universities into comprehensive and specialist, with a third category of "other higher education institutions". In staifrooms these will no doubt become "real" universities, "nearly real" universities and "nearly" universities. \AThy do we need such categories? Let the institutions stand alone to show what they can do and what they can fund.

Otherwise too much energy will be spent as universities struggle for redefinition.

A major focus is for vocational education and training to become part of the system.

VET is stated to be "of equal value": shades of the old advanced education rhetoric that was very quickly shown to be empty. VET, as the newcomer, is destined to fit in rather than to influence what universities do, providing opportunities that are as yet not fully clear.

Although the review asserts their different roles and hence different sectoral responsibilities, how long can such assertions be sustained without a heavy controlling hand? The review dismantles its own argument for distinction by saying that there needs to be "a capacity for the whole system to provide integrated [my emphasis] responses to workforce needs of industries and enterprises".

How can separate sectors he integrated without a lot of mutual angst and resentment and the stronger sector prevailing in any dispute? The Bradley review proposes a single ministerial council with responsibility for all tertiary education and training. This is a step in the right direction, because at present higher education falls between one ministerial council essentially covering school education and another covering VET. Too much optimism about what such a body might produce is not backed by history.

The membership of ministerial councils changes too often, they meet infrequently and briefly, and state rather than national issues loom large in the minds of ministers. Unless the new council has a ongoing secretariat able to tap deep into the sector, as this review did, it is unlikely to give post-school education the examination it needs.

About nine of the Bradley recommendations require the states to "agree to" or to "negotiate". This is a sure way to slow down the implementation of the reforms. Particularly in higher education, where the fiscal responsibility is with the commonwealth government, the national interest is much

more than the collective compromises likely to he achieved among the states.

After all, about the only major enterprises left in Australia that operate on a state-bystate basis are the states themselves.

What would have been good to see in the review? Three issues stand out The first was the opportunity to redefine where schooling ends and provide a broader, more unified sweep for post-school education. The funding responsibilities of the states and the commonwealth are still too convoluted, and although the review goes some way towards resolving them, it falls shurt uf significant change consistent with revolutionary rhetoric.

A sensible approach could be to have a compulsory period of schooling to the end of the year a child turns 15, or to the end of Year 10. This period is undertaken in a school and a child does not leave school until they have reached an acceptable standard in terms of literacy, numeracy, general knowledge and skills. This should be common across the country and funded by the states. After Year 10. the adolescent moves into a commonwealth-funded period of further education, training and work. This again is a requirement, at least until the age of 18.

In this way the commonwealth would be responsible for the training of the future workforce. More flexibility would be possible in post-school education, with Years 11 and 12 at school, VET in schools, VET in the workplace, private providers, TAFE and universities all developing new arrangements better suiting the adolescent (and adult) clientele seeking to prepare for work.

This leads to the second issue not dealt with by Bradley: that VET funding and higher education funding need to be determined together, because it will be increasingly difficult to distinguish which sector does what As the review acknowledges, the country has suffered from the decision of the education and training ministers in the 1980s not to accept the Dawkins offer for the commonwealth to take up the funding of VET (or TAFE, as it was then).

Why should a student who does a VET course in, say, engineering or accounting have to go to another institution to pursue a degree? The single institution offering training at all levels in a specific field is a model rare in Australia but could well be used in higher education institutions, and particularly in regional Australia. Bradley ’s single agency for regulation and quality would help bring higher education and VET together. To unify policy and funding for these two sectors would have been a genuine revolution.

The third issue is the review has missed an opportunity to advise how higher education and VET could assist with the commonwealth Government ’s educational revolution in schools. If our schooling is so bad and the literacy and numeracy levels so disastrously low, especially in the case of indigenous students, part of the problem must be a university issue, with higher education involved in the solution.

The low status of teaching, the poor preparation of teachers and the low priority universities give to that task, the low level of school-related research undertaken in universities, particularly on effective teaching, and the lack of priority attached by universities to improvements in schooling are all issues the higher education sector should engage with more thoroughly.

How students can be retained at school is fundamental to increasing participation.

School-university partnerships are key underpinnings to the changes that are required.

An interesting question is how the commonwealth intends to deal with the review and what effect the economic downturn will have on issues such as participation, government funding and the skill requirements of a recovering economy.

The old saw that education is an investment, not a cost, remains valid. The challenge for governments, institutions and students alike is to make the right investment The Bradley review provides excellent advice to the Australian Government on how this investment should be made and managed.

As chairman of the Advanced Education CounciL and then of the Higher Education CounciL in the mid-1980s, Gregor Ramsey was heaviLy invoLved in deveLoping and impLementingthe white paper poLicies. He Left the commonweaLth to become head of TAFENSWin 1991.

Australian National

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