Australian universities ‘lucky to be sidelined from skills summit’

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Australian universities should be thankful that they have largely been sidelined from the new government’s signature talkfest, according to a leading analyst.

Australian National University policy expert Andrew Norton warned that this week’s Jobs and Skills Summit could generate ill-conceived thought bubbles. “A hundred-person focus group is not really a great way to make public policy,” Professor Norton told Times Higher Education.

“I’m concerned that ideas will have a consensus accumulate around them without having been subjected to rigorous analysis.”

The summit, a key Labor Party promise before the May federal election, takes place on 1 and 2 September and is likely to focus on migration, industrial relations, wage stagnation and productivity.

Places at the summit are keenly sought, with numbers initially limited to 100 – although that figure has reportedly been revised to 142 – and employers and unions claiming the lion’s share of places.

While 12 academics and two chancellors have been included for their expertise or business or community links, universities as institutions have a sole representative in the form of Universities Australia (UA) chief executive Catriona Jackson. The term “higher education” merited just one mention in the summit’s discussion paper, compared with 14 for “training”.

Professor Norton said this could be interpreted as a slight against universities. “I think that’s not intended. It’s just that the momentum is around the obvious big skill shortages, which are mostly in the vocational education and training [VET] occupations.”

He said universities were lucky not to have a bigger presence. “I don’t want universities to be told, ‘you’re producing 5,000 graduates and 10,000 nurses’ and all that kind of command and control, which has been used in VET. They list the courses, funded by precise name. We don’t want that level of detail in higher ed, because my view is this actually leads to dysfunction.”

Education minister Jason Clare hosed down suggestions that higher education was not going to be “part of the narrative” at the summit.

“I think it’s going to be a big part of the conversation,” he told the Australian Financial Review Higher Education Summit in Sydney on 30 August. “The treasurer has made it very clear that he doesn’t want 500, 600, 700 people congregating in Canberra, because the bigger the group, the less likely you are to get real outcomes. It is a small group, but universities are represented.”

Ms Jackson said UA would push for “fairly” simple measures, such as a boost to the skilled migrant intake and an extension of income-contingent loans to students undertaking microcredentials.

Mr Clare agreed that more international students should be granted residency status following their studies, with only 16 per cent remaining at present. “Wouldn’t it be great if [more] stayed on and helped us fill some of those chronic skills gaps that we’ll be talking about later this week? Seems to me like a no-brainer. Other countries have cottoned onto this and have changed their visa settings to attract students. I think it’s something that’s worth considering here.”

He said he would convene the Council for International Education to “kick this idea around, and hopefully we’ll get a run at the Jobs and Skills summit in Canberra later this week”.

UA also wants more clinical placements made available for students in health-related fields. “It doesn’t matter how many health workers – nurses, doctors, paramedics – universities educate if we can’t get them clinical places,” Ms Jackson told the Sydney forum. “We can’t graduate them out the other end and we can’t get them onto the wards and into the mental health and aged care facilities.”

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