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KPMG report displays a lack of understanding

 

If you slipped and broke your leg, what doctor would recommend you break the other one — and fuse the two together? Such ­bizarre diagnosis and treatment would make the whole thing worse.

Yet that’s the sort of logical leapfrog in some of the recommendations of last week’s report by global consultancy giant KPMG.

The report contends Australia needs a single system for all post-school education — instead of two strong and high-quality systems standing side-by-side, each with a distinct and crucial role.

Why? The case for a monolithic single system hasn’t been made — neither in this report nor in public discussion.

And other modern economies are not heading this way, so we would need very good reasons to consider such a radical, uncharted path.

Our global competitors Germany, the US and Britain are exploring ways to ensure more collaboration and easier exchange and interaction between vocational education and universities — and we’re already doing that in Australia.

KPMG laments the serious policy mistakes and funding cuts that have done so much damage to the vocational education system during the past decade, as it should.

Let me be very clear: our world-class universities want to work alongside a strong and effective vocational system. This includes funding arrangements that maximise access and equity. This is the best way to equip students for work and for life.

The two biggest policy missteps made to Australia’s vocational education system were systematic funding cuts to publicly funded TAFE colleges, and the expansion of the federal VET FEE-HELP loan scheme, allowing some fly-by-night private providers to go to town on public money.

A major concern is the report’s call that public funds and income contingent loans should be “applied equally” to public and private providers.

This policy experiment was tried in vocational education and it failed — spectacularly.

There is a grave risk that some of the report’s proposals could lead to a repeat of the VET FEE-HELP debacle, when dubious private colleges and providers swooped in to exploit the poor design and lax regulation of the scheme for personal gain. This cost taxpayers $1.2 billion.

And we’re still paying for it. Only last weekend, it was reported that the Commonwealth Ombudsman had more than 5000 complaints in nine months from people who claimed they had been ripped off by private colleges or substandard vocational education courses.

Why on earth would Australia expose its proven university loans scheme — adopted by countries all over the world — to that sort of risk?

In the university sector, the report also claims that Australian universities are all similar. This simply isn’t true and ignores the diversity across the sector.

At the heart of this issue is an old chestnut — teaching-only universities. But all our universities are well-served by combining the latest teaching with the latest ­research. So, too, are our high-quality graduates.

Another concerning feature of the report is the call for an Australian version of the Teaching Excellence Framework, the British system meant to measure teaching quality — something that is very hard to do. Instead it measures student satisfaction and job outcomes.

The report’s authors realise this, instead proposing to go beyond the TEF and measure the “value add” in teaching. But that is a notoriously complex and difficult thing to do.

As teaching and learning expert Richard James notes: “The TEF assessment process is not trustworthy enough to achieve TEF’s declared purposes. Nor are they robust enough to be the basis for information on which to guide prospective student decision-making.”

Also, KPMG’s report says Commonwealth Grants Scheme funds are not just funding teaching but are “also being used for research” is some sort of fashion that is not transparent.

While CGS funds are mostly intended to cover teaching costs, a small portion is expressly meant to cover the other required functions of a university: building maintenance, community obligations and maintaining a base capability for research. Costings studies in 2011 and 2016 show 90 per cent of CGS funding is spent on teaching — precisely in line with the purposes of the fund.

Australia’s university sector is an inspiring success story. This is something of which all Australians should be fiercely proud. A big part of this success is strong and sensible policy.

Australia’s rapidly changing economy needs a high-quality VET system and world-class universities. Sadly, KPMG’s policy prescriptions would leave our universities limping behind our global economic competitors. Right now, we are sprinting ahead of them.

To repair VET, we need solutions that leave the vocational sector standing confidently side-by-side with our world-class universities, not untested or unneeded prescriptions that would leave our entire higher education system without a leg to stand on.

Catriona Jackson is chief executive of Universities Australia.

As published in The Australian 8 August 2018

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