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Election over, it’s time for universities and government to reset their relationship

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Election over, it’s time for universities and government to reset their relationship

Few people anticipated that Australia’s Coalition government would return to power in last week’s election. Australia now needs the returned government and the university sector to work together. This will require both parties to put aside residual tension.

The government’s relations with the sector have been in an uncomfortable place. Unable to negotiate parliamentary passage of an agreed approach to cost restraint, the government had introduced a student funding cap by regulation. Relations have been icy. The Coalition would not credit the university sector when contemplating how it pulled off its election win.

In the election, Labor had offered policies that were attractive to the sector. A reinstatement of demand-driven funding and the prospect of ‘compacts’ with providers, addressing two of the sector’s key issues: lifting the cap on revenue and avoiding the prospect of performance-based funding.

It would be easy but simplistic to miss policy detail in the face of these headline differences. Both sides of politics have been sending clear signals for some time that they want universities to modernise structures, raise standards and build bridges across the university-VET divide. Both want universities to pursue meaningful engagement with business and community priorities.

There is every reason, in the interests of the sector and the nation, for universities and the government to make a new start.

Look to the English experience

A sobering example of the breakdown between universities and government can be found in the English experience. Between 2015 and 2017 the Conservative government initiated sweeping changes to the higher education environment within which the English university sector operates. This included legislative change and a new regulator. These reforms have been pursued with vigour after the 2017 election, an election campaign that surfaced the perception that universities were unsafe spaces for conservative viewpoints.

Gone was a ‘buffer body’ providing funding – regulation through carrots and gentle sticks – and in with a different type of regulator. The Office for Students comes equipped with many sticks, but few carrots to be seen. New performance measures in the Teaching Excellence and Knowledge Exchange Frameworks and an emphasis on evaluating university performance by graduates’ salary outcomes, it’s been a tough few years for universities. And a major review of funding across tertiary education.

There is a plausible explanation in the English sector that universities had taken for granted a privileged status in public service delivery. That came unstuck very quickly with charges of grade inflation, lowering standards, ‘fat cat’ vice-chancellor pay. It was easier to make these charges stick when universities, collectively, are seen in political terms as part of the problem, not part of the solution.

It is not only the sector that has much at stake

Australia’s returned government and minister Dan Tehan have much to gain from a thaw as well. It’s no fun being a minister without constituents, grinding away trying to address issues your colleagues and other sectors see as obvious with no one engaged, no partners creating space for mutual success.

Communities want to see knowledge-based businesses, in the cities and in the regions, and clever solutions to environmental and social policy challenges. Ministers and universities gain when these are on display.

Engagement is a two-way street and governing is hard in every portfolio. Both the Minister and sector share a deep interest in aligning to address the big issues: economic, social, health, environmental, international.

What does active engagement look like?

The sector needs a plan. There are two key review activities due in the next six months, now refreshed in their mandate, with both sides of politics clearly engaged: provider categories and the qualifications framework. Universities can use these to refresh thinking about a tertiary agenda. There are other live topics where views across the sector vary more widely, such as performance-based funding formulae, so it’s useful to focus energy on those where there’s the opportunity for presenting constructive solutions.

Some fresh discussion is clearly needed about what really matters in all of these, for the sector and for government, and how each relates to what needs to be achieved over the next three years. The icy temperature in the relationship between government and the sector won’t be thawed by continued serial and mutual provocations.

The sector as a whole, well beyond regional universities, has every reason to make the most of its teaching, research and engagement activities in rural and remote Australia. Similarly, in its engagement with business and communities, universities step into their own mission and into the agenda of any minister for tertiary education.

Despite the many exceptions, we know that business sectors and communities see universities as hard to partner with. A little humility, a lot of leveraging universities’ convening power, and probably a slice of largesse will oil the wheels of these discussions.

Universities – individually and collectively – can keep working toward mature governance systems, ones where they are transparently held to account for students’ and taxpayers’ funding and afforded the freedoms of academic and organisational flexibility. Rather than simply claiming the autonomy universities rightly regard as vital, it may be more effective to earn it, making the case that this is the best model for effective and efficient outcomes for Australians.

There is a lot at stake for both government and sector in prioritising relationship-building for the longer-term now. It’s time to talk.

This article first appeared on the Times Higher Education blog on June 2, 2019.