In our latest policy brief, *Francesca Beddie advises Ministers Tehan and Cash about future directions for tertiary education policy.


Ministers Tehan and Cash


This paper puts forward for your consideration during the summer recess some of the big questions confronting the tertiary education system.


Policy-makers in the early 1960s were confronted by the same challenge you face: how to contain the costs of expanding tertiary education and to maintain the system’s relevance to the labour market. Robert Menzies appointed the Martin Committee to tackle the problem. The committee’s notion of a mass tertiary education system (sometimes interchanged with the term ‘higher education’ and meaning diploma and above) embraced the 20% of secondary school students who matriculated. That has changed. Today, post-secondary education and training is becoming a pre-requisite for nearly all Australians, of all ages. Nevertheless, the principle the Martin Committee adopted from Sir Harold Robbins in England, is still applicable: tertiary education should be available to all citizens according to their inclination and capacity.

In 1965 Senator John Gorton oversaw the government’s response to the Martin Report, which emerged as a binary system made up of universities and colleges of advanced education. Universities were deemed to have responsibilities for higher learning and research, for which they received specific funding, while the colleges were primarily to offer vocationally oriented programs, accompanied by relevant liberal studies, and to serve the community’s social and economic needs. The ideal of a system of equal but different institutions foundered on the hierarchy of prestige, in which universities and research were seen as superior.

The binary policy was replaced in 1988 by the Dawkins ‘revolution’, which introduced a unified system intended to produce graduates in fields the economy needed. What came about was an increasingly uniform set of higher education institutions, nearly all called ‘universities’, and a more singular focus on skills. Today the familiar pattern of Australian higher education is dissolving, with the mantra of differentiation becoming louder and, unfortunately, the vocational education and training system demoralised after the VET-FEE Help scandal and breakdown in the federal funding model.


Looking back on the binary policy of universities and colleges of advanced education (a third element of teachers’ colleges was abandoned) it is clear it suffered from a lack of clarity on fundamental questions about the types of knowledge, types of research and types of learning it was addressing. These opened the way to blurred boundaries and missions and the reaffirmation of a hierarchy of status both within educational and occupational structures.

Today, we still suffer from vague usage of the word ‘tertiary’. We see fierce defence of the use of the word ‘university’, to protect self-accreditation and autonomy and funding. Labels such as ‘competency-based’ and ‘training packages’ are not universally understood. They add to the fog that engulfs the VET sector. More fundamentally, the current approach to establishing occupational skills standards is struggling to shape a training system that delivers the capabilities employers are demanding. Further, the push coming from occupations to increase entry-level credentials and the emphasis being placed on diploma-level qualifications as pathways to degrees rather than reputable qualifications in themselves reduces the attraction of the paraprofessional jobs.,-contemporary-policy-and-future-possibilities


  • Do not be constrained by the current structures of secondary and tertiary education.In 2018, we need to investigate how post-compulsory education responds to the needs of all Australians (including existing workers and older people, as well as those coming from school). While age-old institutions such as universities and apprenticeships still have a place, we need different institutions to cater to the 21st century learner and the demands of the knowledge economy. The institutional settings are already changing, with skill sets, part-time, online and work-integrated learning firmly part of the mix of offerings. The hierarchy of prestige and funding needs to catch up.
  • Any recommendation for the structural reform of tertiary education must be predicated on a sound secondary school education. Usually, however, the two tiers are considered separately. Given the blurring of the educational boundaries — with VET taught in schools, TAFE institutes offering degrees and universities teaching high school students — it is time to build different institutions of learning.
  • People of all ages have to be able to move in and out of the system. Tackling the perennial obstacles in educational pathways must be a priority. This will involve responding to the calls for much greater flexibility in the qualification framework, including provision for micro-credentials.
  • Inquiry and evaluation must be integral to all tertiary teaching and learning. In the new world of work, which heralds machines doing routine tasks and people solving problems, learning the how without the why is not enough. This is not the time to break the teaching-research nexus. Good teachers are scholars in both universities and TAFEs.


  • Francesca Beddie is a former diplomat, who served in Jakarta, Moscow and Berlin. She trained as an historian and is now a policy analyst and writing coach. After leaving the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, she took up various roles in the field of adult and tertiary education. She was executive director of Adult Learning Australia and general manager of research at the National Centre for Vocational Education Research. She has written a commissioned history of the Department of Health as well as papers and reports on the history of tertiary education policy and the nexus between research and policy. She is also writing about the uses of history in Putin’s Russia. Francesca edits the Professional Historians Australia NSW & ACT blog.