The Coalition Government used the pandemic-induced shock to introduce legislative measures, commonly known as the Job-Ready Graduates (JRG) package, to restructure the nation’s higher education (HE) funding arrangements. It had failed to get these reforms up on three separate occasions.
The change was primarily framed as an intervention to ensure that higher education – and its graduates – would be ready to help the nation avert COVID economic shock. JRG would address the skills shortage, weak university/industry linkages, growth in the school leaver population, and geographical attainment gaps in the sector.
In a recently published paper (Crisis and Policy Imaginaries: Higher Education Reform during a Pandemic), we critically review the JRG package through the lens of crisis and policy response.
We ask what was seen as a problem to be fixed by the Morrison Government, what policy responses were introduced, and what was conceived as a desirable future enabled by this policy reform.
Limited public consultation
To begin with, the change process did not pass through proper public consultation. Policy initiatives may come from top-down (e.g. in the form of political narratives and theories) as well as from bottom-up (e.g. in the form of social movements and public submissions that draw on shared conceptions about what society is and should be).
In the case of the JRG package, the process proceeded with no genuine public consultation: the Government allowed a mere five working days for public submissions. Notably, except for arguments on social work education, none of the critical issues raised by the sector was considered in the final bill.
Before 2020, the Coalition Government tried and failed at restructuring the HE funding on three occasions. When the COVID-19 pandemic hit the sector hard, the Government seized the moment to make its fourth attempt at reform. The pandemic exposed the vulnerability of Australian HE. Many people were also distracted by the health crisis. The situation presented an opportunity to impose unpopular reforms. The reformers were keen not to waste a crisis.
The policy selling point was that the health crisis (COVID-19) coupled with fast-paced technological changes in the workplace pose a risk to national economic productivity and competitiveness. The policy purported to provide a solution.
In essence, the JRG package signifies what Boin and colleagues refer to as ‘crisis exploitation’. The Government framed the COVID-19 pandemic and the associated fear of an economic downturn as a crisis to sell old policy packages and imaginaries.
As Fassin notes, in a time of crisis, a policy narrative has elements of both temporality (triggering a sense of urgency) and affectivity (triggering anxiety). Crisis narratives make drastic policy changes possible by creating a shared perception of threats or opportunities. We find that crisis opportunism was cynically exploited by the former government to prosecute an old policy agenda.
Imaginaries represent shared visions of desirable futures. When it generates new imaginaries, a crisis can be transformative. Sargeant speaks of crisis as ’a moment of discontinuity’ that requires ‘an act of imagination large enough to envisage a future different from the continuities mandated by the past, and powerful enough to generate a strategy sufficient to chart a path towards this future’ (emphasis added).
In this vein, the JRG reform relies on recycled imaginaries and a tired lexicon. The JRG agenda was essentially set years before the COVID-19 crisis, and the desirable futures outlined in the policy are largely a rehearsal of old political arguments for increased efficiency, productivity, and accountability.
The Morrison Government used the pandemic as an opportunity to (re)articulate its pre-existing neoliberal policy imperatives of privatising and economising HE. Public spending on HE is linked to the need for maximising economic returns. JRG envisages HE as a subset of the economy: universities should support the nation’s economic goals of productivity and competitiveness by producing more graduates in selected ‘fields of economic productivity’.
In essence, the rupture caused by the pandemic was both a crisis seized opportunistically and an opportunity lost by the Australian Government for visionary reform. In justifying the timeliness of the reform, rather than constructing new imaginaries, the Government reactivated old neoliberal visions of society and the economy.
In a policy process, the framing of issues matters. As Edwards notes, ‘It is only once a policy issue is accepted as a problem that people can ask, “What can we do about it?”’
In this respect, the JRG package can be defined by the issue it omits from consideration. For instance, while the reform advocates for innovation, productivity, and competitiveness, issues of research and research training receive no attention. The urgency of decarbonising the economy and the role that universities might play in this was ignored in the reform. No substantive reference is made to the perils of climate change, its impact on employment, public health, agriculture, water and energy, the environment, and all areas of social and economic activity.
Further, through price signalling, the reform privileges STEM fields and unfairly undervalues the importance of humanities and social sciences. The economy is seen as entirely constitutive of the nation, allowing little space for culture, society, or genuine political debate. The focus on teaching, health sciences and STEM fields is justifiable. The issue is not with expecting universities to be responsive and adaptive to the nation’s needs and priorities. Instead, an excessive emphasis on technical training risks the emergence of generations with little or no regard for democracy, social cohesion, and environmental justice. As Ronald J. Daniels, the president of Johns Hopkins University, argues, universities play a critical role in fostering democracy by way of supporting ‘social mobility, citizenship education, the stewardship of facts, and the cultivation of pluralistic, diverse communities’.
Technology calls for adaptive humans and effective adoption of technology requires expertise from social sciences as well as STEM fields. Technological changes indeed raise the skill requirements of jobs, but human capital (the educational attainment of the workforce) is a narrow parameter of progress. A cohesive, prosperous, and free society is much greater than the economic activities underpinning it.
The JRG package also frames equity issues reductively. The complex and nuanced equity categories articulated in previous policies are reduced to a crude city/rural divide.
Elements of the reform are also nativist in orientation. The policy discourse around the legislation rehearses a range of nativist tropes about Australian universities for Australian students and Australian jobs for Australian graduates. This obscures the vital roles played by international students and immigration in Australian economic and social development over our history. The nativist vision seeks to return to a period in which the HE sector was not dependent on the revenue generated by international students’ fees without providing the funding which universities turned to international tuition fees to replace.
This nativism echoes the populist anti-globalisation sentiment we are witnessing globally. Elements of nativist imaginary also evoke an earlier exclusionary, racist, and xenophobic period of Australian history, including the White Australia regime that persisted for much of the 20th century.
The Job-ready Graduates Discussion Paper stressed: “A strong economic recovery will depend on knowledge-intensive jobs held by Australians who are highly skilled, creative and flexible.” However, this nativist rhetoric failed to acknowledge Australia’s historical dependence on immigration to compensate for a skills deficit, especially in STEM fields. This might not come as a surprise given the anti-immigration agenda and populist inclination of the ruling Coalition.
A moment of a significant rupture may also be a moment of bold measures. It challenges the legitimacy of the status quo and puts pressure on the ruling elite to devise coping strategies. A crisis also demands new imaginaries–new shared visions of the desirable futures. Taylor identifies two pathways of imaginary formation: new theories that inspire new practices or reinterpretation of existing practices that lead to a new vision of the future. During a crisis, as our analysis shows, those in power may also choose to enact pre-existing imaginaries, responding to new challenges with old answers.
In our view, the JRG package was a cynical exercise at several levels, most obviously in its seizing of the moment of the pandemic to prosecute a change that it has been pursuing since at least 2014. In emphasising market-based competition, personal choice, and human capital, the policy package overlooked the importance of such inclusive goals as civic cooperation, shared commitment, and human capability.
From here to where? It appears that another round of HE reform is on the horizon. The new Federal Government has an opportunity to reimagine the future and purpose of Australian HE. We urge boldness. Australia’s world class HE sector stands ready to engage creatively and constructively with government, the community, and current and future students. Australian universities are well-positioned to contribute to a bold change agenda: one which tackles the skills gap and the host of other actions needed for Australia to continue to thrive as a democracy which acts in the interests of its citizens and the planet. To that end, extensive sector-wide consultation is critical.
Tebeje Molla is a senior lecturer in the School of Education, Deakin University. His research areas include student equity, teacher professional learning, and policy analysis. His work is informed by critical sociology and the capability approach to social justice and human development.
Denise Cuthbert is the Associate Deputy Vice Chancellor, Research Training and Development at RMIT and has published extensively on higher education policy and practice.
Denise Cuthbert, RMIT University