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Education Minister Jason Clare girds up for the tough problems

15 September 2022

It’s just over three months into Albanese era and the new government is slowly and steadily picking up the reins in higher education policy. For universities it hasn’t been a bad ride. Labor’s ministers and advisers are accessible to the sector. They’ve been listening and the result, in this early period, has been the removal…

[6 September | The Australian | Tim Dodd]

It’s just over three months into Albanese era and the new government is slowly and steadily picking up the reins in higher education policy.

For universities it hasn’t been a bad ride. Labor’s ministers and advisers are accessible to the sector. They’ve been listening and the result, in this early period, has been the removal of some irritating stones in the shoes.

The biggest one is Education Minister Jason Clare’s decision to reform the Australian Research Council, the body which hands out, on a competitive basis, about $800 million a year to university research projects.

Over the years the ARC has increasingly been an irritant to researchers. Less than a quarter of grant applications are successful but the work of submitting applications became increasingly onerous and the way the council dealt with applications – ranging from what aspects of researchers’ work was taken into account, to long delays in announcing grants, and to how suspicions of Chinese influence were dealt with – raised universities’ ire.

The ARC had also become a convenient way for Coalition education ministers to spark culture war skirmishes with universities, using ministerial powers to suspend research grants which the ARC had recommended for approval. Clare has given universities what they wanted – a full review of the ARC undertaken by three senior university leaders led by Queensland University of Technology vice-chancellor Margaret Sheil, herself a former ARC chief executive.

The minister has also asked the ARC to halt the next Excellence in Research for Australia assessment – a procedure which lists, in detail, each university’s level of research achievement against world standards. It’s a cumbersome and expensive process and Clare has asked universities to work with his department to find a better and more efficient way of doing it.

One thing he hasn’t given way on is the desire of universities to end the ”national interest test” for ARC grants which was introduced by former Coalition education minister Dan Tehan. But Clare has asked for it to be better defined and to be made simpler. Neither has he made any move to end the ministerial power to cancel grants which are approved by the ARC, something which would be welcomed by universities. But, as the minister, it would be surprising if he were in favour of giving up this power.

Clare has also quietly stepped back from Alan Tudge’s plan to force universities to adopt a standard template for intellectual property agreements.

Last year Tudge, then the education minister, said that standardised templates for IP agreements with industry would reduce the “frictions between universities and business and cut down on time spent negotiating”.

Universities strongly objected saying that the templates should be voluntary. In many cases, particularly when dealing with large well-resourced businesses, it would be a roadblock to engagement and put off business partners, the Group of Eight universities said. The Australian Technology Network of Universities said Mr Tudge’s approach was “antithetical to the flexible, adaptive and responsive approach that our industry partners are seeking”.

In a media release last week Clare announced 12 standardised IP agreements for universities to use. But, while universities are encouraged to use them, they are voluntary, not compulsory.

These decisions by Clare have helped him build a smooth relationship with universities. But these are the relatively minor issues. He has far bigger, tougher and more consequential decisions coming up.

A big item on the list is to rebuild the international student business post-Covid. Clare and Home Affairs Minister Clare O’Neil have already said the time which international students can stay and work after graduation will be extended, provided they have qualifications in skill shortage areas.

Now he has to strike a balance between encouraging international graduates to stay and work in Australia to fill skill needs, without going too far and turning international student entry into a migration racket in which academic standards don’t count.

He also has to make big changes to domestic tertiary education post-Covid, and reshape the system to produce the qualified graduates that Australia needs.

A key task is to bring vocational and higher education closer together, so that they don’t live in parallel universes. He and Skills Minister Brendan O’Connor need to work with the states to change the qualifications framework so that courses can straddle the barrier between the two sectors so that students can have the best of both. They also need to fully legitimise short courses, or micro-credentials, to give people the ability to train up quickly in a new skill area and be recognised for it.

Clare faces another challenge in dealing with the blow back from Covid. The hasty shift to online education during the pandemic left the tertiary education in a limbo situation that is neither traditional face-to-face teaching, nor online teaching.

With some effort, it could evolve into a very good hybrid system of learning. Online learning would replace lectures, and each student would receive individual attention in small group seminars, tutorials and lab sessions that are also designed to build soft skills such as communication and teamwork.

We are far from that now because many of the online courses quickly put together during the pandemic leave much to be desired. But hybrid learning is here to stay and Clare has to work closely with universities to ensure that its quality improves quickly.

Yet another item on his plate is the future of the Coalition’s Job Ready Graduates higher education funding scheme and tits fee structure which charges students anything between $4000 and nearly $15,000 per year of study. Is it fair that humanities, business and law students pay the top rate while others pay far less?

It is clear that Clare will need to find solutions to all these issues without any significant increase in funding. Labor has promised funding for 20,000 new university places (which will go to disadvantaged students), but that’s about it.

So can Clare find a path through these challenges without spending new money? He also, of course, has major issues to attend to in the other parts of his portfolio – schools and early childhood education.

At least, unlike the previous administration, the channels of communication are open between universities and government. Universities are going to have to use them to offer government worthwhile solutions to their sector’s problems which can be fulfilled at minimum cost.