Change. I don’t think we can go on as we are, because after the next election, whoever wins, there's a high probability that the present minister won’t be the minister. What you run the risk of is yet another Band-Aid, and then there will be an election, then another, sometimes three, elections, and after each we start to apply the Band-Aids all over again. [There needs to be], I think, a really serious effort to sit back and reflect on what post-compulsory sector would serve the country best, and then how do we get it. If we do that well, it will endure beyond the term of a parliament or even the term of a minister. In the meantime, I don’t think we can continue to go on the way we are.
I don’t see that there's any [vision for the country as a whole]. People are telling us that the post-compulsory sector isn’t delivering what the country needs – and some of that is legitimate. It's sensible to talk about how we think about apprenticeships, vocational education, their context in relation to universities. But it would be better if we knew what sort of country our political leaders were trying to build. At least then we would have a context.
Our aim should be to give the minister a compellingly strong argument so that they say, "We can do this better and we see how". It’s one of the reasons I’m pleased to be part of the Monash Commission – because we should be able to give them great evidence that says, "This is the vision we need", and they say, "Well, people agree with that, so let’s begin to make some change that endures".
I think we really have to provide a case that is the best we can make, as strong as we can make it, as apolitical as we can make it, as balanced as we can make it, but with a definite aim in mind.
I think there's a lot of work to do, and it's an exciting project to be involved in.
[We need] a compelling and comprehensive vision for post-sec education with a constituency that’s prepared to walk with us, to say, "Yes, this is what we need, this is what we have to do, and these are the values that will guide this should it be implemented in this comprehensive package".
Building that constituency will be very important, and by that I don’t mean consulting with someone by saying simply, "What do you think we should do?". The real point is how does it all come together and give us that solid rock on which the future of the country can be built. To do that you’ve got to have people walking with you. You don’t just say, "What do you think, what do you think, what do you think?" and take a bit from here and there and put it together. You’ve got to say to people, "Here’s where we’re heading, what do you think?", and then modify it and walk together. When you do it properly you begin to build up what would be an influential body of opinion that will have an impact beyond what it would if the people from the Monash Commission simply stood behind a microphone and said, "We should do this". We have to give the government of the day, and indeed the opposition of the day, the evidence they need.
It’s a long game, and you’ve got to play the whole game – and that includes bringing the community with you.
If we think of the differences in perceived value of university, TAFE, VET and so on, then I do think we need to explain their distinctive roles differently. We've allowed to develop a sort of hierarchy, and I don’t know that the consequences of that are of great value to the country. We have to think of it a little differently.
I don’t think we've done the country well by allowing universities to get into a position where they are seen to be much more useful and important than the vocational system.
When they took the caps off enrolment, more people went to university. On the one hand you can say it's an equity measure, and on the other hand what it also does is highlight the prejudice that university is better than TAFE or VET.
Funding arrangements can also make a difference in perception, so there’s a sort of subconscious bias as well as a conscious bias. That’s a cultural issue, and culture is hard to change, but if you don’t start to try to change it, it will never change.
The downside of school for me was that I was curious but not very structured. When I went into a very structured secondary system where the teachers were not necessarily well-qualified – they were three pages ahead of us in the textbook, and when we figured that out, we would read five or six pages ahead and then ask a question. I must have been a horrible student. That system just didn’t suit me, but it did suit other people.
I now know that a problem for the education system is catering for the heterogeneous bunch we call humanity – with people who come from different backgrounds and with different levels of interest, different levels of curiosity and attainment – and provide them with the solid foundations they need to be able to secure for themselves the future they'd like to secure. It's difficult, but we shouldn’t lose sight of the goal: extending people to their capacity. Instead of saying, "I’ve got five really smart students and 20 who are average, so I'll teach to the average", I don’t think that’s good enough – we need really smart people to be really smart, and the overall level of education to increase.
People who want to learn, who are curious and who want to understand things, and those who are not dumb but not organised in that way [that flourishes in a more structured system], we’ve got to find a way to let them both prosper.
I think that it used to be seen to be bad to stream classes, and I don’t know that that’s [necessarily correct]. One of the things I would like us to discuss as the Monash Commission is how we handle that heterogeneity well in what is now a very big post-secondary system.
I don’t believe there's a serious vision for the sort of post-compulsory education sector that's comprehensive, challenging, but designed really to set it up well for a future that's useful to the country. Whatever happens and however much we charge students is a related but separate issue – we, the Australian taxpayers, will be contributing a fair amount to running our post-compulsory institutions, and I think it’s fair that we get a decent return on that investment. I think it’s also fair that the universities are in a position to be able to do very well what they choose to do, and part of that is respect for institutional autonomy. I mean respect in the context of understanding that they have to give value – it’s not about a VC saying give us our money and go away. That was never a sensible approach (although fairly common), and certainly not in contemporary times. The big gap right now is the big vision: what are we going to do, what should we be like, how do we give value, how do we make the system work for all the people that depend on systems like this – the staff, students, the community and Australia generally. What should we do and how should we be structured to deliver on that effectively, but also efficiently?
Too much of our debate is about money. Officials will quibble with universities' expenditure or a minister will announce another cut or another hike in HECS fees. What's that going to lead to? It might lead to slightly lower public expenditure, but what will be left, and what will be left behind when all these Band-Aids fall off? It’s a weak approach to an important element in preparing a future for this country when we just put a Band-Aid on here and a Band-Aid on there because it's hard, and it'll be someone else’s problem when the Band-Aids fall off.