July.4.2022

O’Shea: All I want for higher education now and tomorrow

By Sarah O'Shea

Fresh from delivering a widely-applauded keynote at this year’s HERDSA conference, Fragility or tenacity? Equity and participation in the pandemic university (read it, it’s fantastic), Professor Sarah O’Shea of the National Centre of Student Equity in Higher Education at Curtin University shares her hopes and visions for the sector’s future.

My first face-to-face conference in over two years has given me pause to consider the many changes and challenges the university sector has encountered in the last years. The onset of the pandemic both exacerbated existing issues within the sector as well as revealing a whole gamut of new complexities related to funding sources, precarity of employment and systemic injustices for equity-bearing students. 

We are not yet post-pandemic and there are many things  the onset of the health crisis has revealed. It showed us COVID was never simply a health issue but required a much broader social response. 

Indeed, key to how we emerge from the pandemic will be our education systems, particularly the higher education setting. With this in mind I offer a personal wish list of changes needed in the system, to better serve the students and staff therein:

  • Linked to the previous point is the need to revisit the removal of Commonwealth financial support for those students who do not manage to maintain ‘an overall pass rate of 50 per cent’ across their studies (DESE, 2021). We know that many students from equity backgrounds may initially fail some subjects as they navigate the university system but still go on to succeed academically. Pedagogically, failing can often result in key points of learning and students should never be penalised financially as a result.
  • Recent research has indicated the high cost of ‘investment’ universities make to support and retain the equity student cohort. These costs are often borne by those institutions located in regional areas or who have committed to a mission to open up educational pathways for disadvantaged communities. Such work is laudable and deserves to be funded in ways that recognise the variable nature of investment required in different communities and locations.
  • The precarity of academic employment has always existed but its visibility and impact has become more visible since the onset of COVID-19. I hazard a guess that most of the readers would know of colleagues who have either not had a contract renewed or have been ‘restructured’ out of the organisation. A recent report has highlighted how tertiary education topped national job losses (39%) across Australia, but again, if Australia is to navigate its way out of the current health situation then securing and rewarding university staff is a requisite need moving forward.
  • Finally and fundamentally the current ‘business model’ of the university sector needs to be challenged and revised. The level of public investment in the sector has declined to just 52% of university revenue, which has led to an untenable funding model characterised by an over-reliance on international student fees derived largely from two markets (China and India), a situation identified as problematic even by the Tertiary Education Quality Standards Agency (TEQSA) 

COVID has irrevocably disrupted the existing and accepted business model of higher education, but embracing this disruption will ultimately assist in reimagining this system. Identifying and addressing the enduring and emerging pressure points in the system, provides an opportunity to strengthen the resilience of Australian education systems. We know developing robust and inclusive higher education environments will be key to adapting to new and unforeseen challenges in the future. This is challenging work but  confronting the deficiencies of the current system will ultimately enable us to ‘build back better’.

Sarah O’Shea is a Professor and Director of the National Centre of Student Equity in Higher Education at Curtin University. Sarah has over 25 years experience teaching in universities as well as the VET and Adult Education sector, she has also published widely on issues related to educational access and equity.

Republish this article for free, online or in print, under Creative Commons licence.

One thought on “O’Shea: All I want for higher education now and tomorrow

  1. Rather than just lifting the requirement for a 50% pass rate, the Commonwealth could put in place measures to encourage universities to increase the success rate of students from equity backgrounds. This could include options for student to study at one quarter the full times rate, introductory courses which prepare students for university study, permanent online study options for all courses, nested programs, ones which are integrated with vocational education, and work integrated learning.

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