Executive summary

This paper has been prepared by the Vice-Chancellors of Australia’s dual sector universities as a contribution to discussion about the future shape of post-secondary education in Australia. The paper draws on the unique role and the long and varied experience of dual sector universities in providing programs across the full range of AQF qualifications and more broadly in meeting industry, learner and community needs.

The 2008 Review of Australian Higher Education (Bradley Review) proposed a broader tertiary education system which recognised that ‘although distinct sectors are important, it is also vital that there should be better connections across tertiary education and training to meet economic and social needs which are dynamic and not readily defined by sectoral boundaries.’

Despite the Bradley Review proposals, connections between the higher education and VET systems have – if anything – weakened as differences between the systems in governance, funding andregulation have become entrenched. Enrolments in higher education have grown rapidly (although funding has now been capped) while VET enrolments in publicly funded courses are lower than they were a decade ago as public investment in VET has declined.

Several major recent reports have revisited the Bradley proposals for a more connected tertiary education system. Some have gone further and argued for a single integrated system.

Australia’s dual sector universities are the only public institutions with a mandated role to operate across the full continuum of AQF qualifications in meeting the needs of the communities and industries they serve.

This report highlights the significant benefits available to learners, communities and industries when the capability of dual sector universities is realised through connected programs and student centred pathways. However, it also highlights how differences between the systems inhibit and frustrate the full realisation of the capability of dual sector universities and connections and pathways between higher education and VET more generally.

Proposals to develop a more coherent and integrated single tertiary education system have substantial merit but carry risks in terms of the cost and complexity of system integration and the loss of differentiation and diversity. They are also not likely to be agreed by the states and territories in relation to their roles in VET.

An alternative approach, based on the experience of the dual sector universities, is to retain the key characteristics and distinctive contributions of the current systems, to strengthen each system (particularly VET) where required, better connect the systems through a determined focus on student pathways and to carefully redress distortions between the systems created by anomalies and inconsistencies in funding.

This could be achieved through an overarching policy framework for the provision of post-secondary education in Australia agreed through the Council of Australian Governments (COAG), underpinned by a set of common policy principles to guide the individual and collective development of the systems.

The common policy principles proposed in this paper are:

  • Universal access for young people and lifelong learning for adults
  • New and continuing learners make informed decisions
  • Stronger, distinctive but better-connected systems
  • Assessment and skills recognition support learner’s access and progress
  • Funding is demand driven, system neutral and priced to meet diverse needs
  • Learning and work are integrated.

Based on the experience of the dual sector universities a set of achievable and practical reforms that would strengthen and also better connect the two systems under a common policy framework are:

  • Reforms to the Australian Qualifications Framework (AQF), particularly to support learner centred pathways across the continuum of AQF qualifications
  • Modernising VET qualifications and their development to focus competencies on broad and future skills requirements
  • A coherent funding framework for higher education and VET, spanning the roles of the Commonwealth and states and territories
  • Extending work-based learning including apprenticeships into new industries and occupations in both VET and higher education through partnerships with firms, industries and the labour movement.