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:
- Recent (2021) policy changes in higher education under the Job Ready Graduates Package go some way to recognising the complexity of students’ backgrounds but equally contain elements that are particularly detrimental for certain student cohorts. For example, the increases in costs associated with certain degrees will constrain choices for students from lower incomes and perhaps lead ultimately to them undertaking degrees that do not reflect their skills or strengths. Not only is the risky nature of debt very real for equity-bearing students but equally, equating degree choice with employment outcomes will ultimately constrain diversity of perspectives in fields, effectively underpinning the future productivity of Australia.
- 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.
- The mental health impact of the last two years is still emerging and whilst addressing student wellbeing issues will be keya national response to staff mental health is also needed. Whitsed and Girardi lament the current ‘joyless’ nature of the university workplace and the very clear repercussions this has for staff engagement and productivity. For many academic staff, this ‘joy’ is embedded in teaching and so, placing quality teaching firmly back at the core of the institution is key – the reestablishment of a national agency such as the Office for Learning and Teaching would both affirm excellence in university teaching but also, and perhaps more importantly, recognise and reward the significant contribution of teaching professionals. At a time when international governments are investing in such teaching recognition, the re-establishment of a national teaching and learning academy is needed.
- 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.