FRANCESCA BEDDIE: Tertiary education after COVID-19

Reproduced from Pearls and Irritations and by permission of the author.

One thing COVID-19 has done is shatter laborious bureaucratic reform processes that so often breed inertia rather than change. I marvel at how quickly education systems have adapted to the lockdown.

While the last thing I want to see is a permanent shift to online learning, I fervently hope we harness the innovative genie the crisis has released to build new educational structures rather than rushing to restore the old ones, if that is even possible.

I feel for learners at school and in tertiary education, who are missing out on the social aspects of learning and who are fearful about the implications of this disruption for their further learning and employment. For those people who have lost jobs to which they may not be able to return. And for all those educators and administrators working around the clock to keep things going. However things turn out, these learners and workers are a special cohort who deserve to be shepherded into the next stage of their lives with extra special care.

Circumstances have also made them an experimental group, which is testing in real time new approaches to education. What if that special care meant also continuing the experiment by recalibrating the way things happen in 2021?

Take year 12 students. The federal minister, Dan Tehan, said emphatically ‘there will be no year 13’. What he meant was there will be no repeating year 12. Fair enough. But what if year 13 was, as it is in Quebec, the final year of a two-year pre-university program or the second of a three-year vocational education program? Would this transitional year not allow people to catch up what they may have missed in 2020? Would it not help them make better career decisions about a labour market that could be very different from the one they had in mind when they entered year 11? Could it start to fulfill one aim of the Council of Australian Government’s VET Reform Roadmap, namely stronger alignment and integration between VET and higher education?

The pandemic has uncovered weaknesses across the economy: flaws in global supply chains; over-reliance on international students; the undervaluing of essential workers. It has prompted, already, some corrections in the inequitable treatment of the poor and vulnerable (though not refugees), and it has highlighted how much we rely on our caring professionals, teachers and all those involved in logistics.

The governor of the Bank of England, Mark Carney, has written that this crisis may prompt a fundamental shift in the market economy to one where public values shape private worth because society has prioritised health over profit, community over individuals. This would see ‘the values of economic dynamism and efficiency…joined by those of solidarity, fairness, responsibility and compassion’. Carney expects people will demand that decision makers give more heed to the advice of experts, importantly those scientists working on climate change.

Such a vision can do much to shape the future of tertiary education. In Australia we have the chance finally to do something about, instead of just wishing for, parity of esteem between the higher and vocational education sectors. It should also be possible to shape new R&D collaborations by learning from the way governments have made their decisions only after consulting, in real time, the best medical minds available, and from the work in laboratories across the country and the world to find a vaccine, and from partnerships with industry to turn gin distillers into sanitiser producers and to accelerate domestic manufacturing of masks.

All this, as well as inevitable fiscal restraints, points to the need for new approaches to tertiary education. Governments must reboot policies that have so favoured universities over vocational education. That means fairer student loan arrangements and a recognition of the need to invest in both pure and applied research to drive improvements in the economy. Universities will have to rethink their business models, which may see them shrink but also return to the core business of higher academic learning and research. The whole vocational education sector – providers, industry, public servants – has had a glimpse of what flexibility and responsiveness really mean. They need to work out how to make such agility a permanent feature of the system, especially at a time when VET will be asked to help in the labour market recovery.

On 1 July 2020, a new National Skills Commission (NSC) starts work. The NSC’s stated mission is to provide national leadership for the VET system by finding ‘an approach to national consistency of funding and driving research and analysis of future skills needs across industry’. In the face of the new challenges posed by the pandemic, let us hope it can shed this tired rhetoric and start again. An early task should be to consult all the vocational educators and trainers who have so quickly adapted to working remotely and online and to rethinking practical training. Another will be to ask employers, large and small, what skills they have identified as essential to adapt to the new conditions imposed by the pandemic. I suspect their answers will point to the need to emphasise the practical wisdom that applied learning can foster if it is not too focussed on narrow work tasks. Together with the National Careers Institute, the NSC also has a unique chance to capitalise on the widespread respect for vocationally trained essential workers that has been one of the happier consequences of COVID-19.

Francesca Beddie is a former general manager of research at the National Centre for Vocational Education Research. See her historical analysis of tertiary education structures in A differentiated model for tertiary education: past ideas, contemporary policy and future possibilities