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Australian higher education institutions are caught up in the fallout caused by the COVID-19 pandemic. But closing borders to international students has had an unintended outcome: it’s highlighted faults in the system and raised new questions around higher education in Australian society. How can we best support our international students? Should high school students enrol in university or undertake vocational training at the end of their studies? Do ATARs encompass all of the relevant skills needed for higher education and the workforce? Join host Ginger Gorman with Chancellor of Western Sydney University, Professor Peter Shergold as they discuss Australia’s higher education system – both tertiary and otherwise – and the challenges, and future, of our education sector.
TRANSCRIPT FROM THIS EPISODE:
Ginger Gorman: With me now is Professor Peter Shergold. Peter is an academic and company director and he’s also Chancellor of Western Sydney University. He’s perhaps best known, though, for his five-year role as Secretary of Prime [01:00] Minister and Cabinet, which at the time, made him the most senior public servant in the country during those Howard years of Government. Peter is also a fellow of the Academy of the Social Sciences in Australia and he’s very kindly having me in his home in Canberra. Peter, thank you so much for joining me.
Peter, thank you so much for joining me.
Peter Shergold: It’s great to be here.
Ginger: Peter, a few months ago, the Federal Government announced major changes to higher education and, obviously, this is something close to you heart. What did you make of those changes?
Peter: Well, there needs to be changes, needed to be changes for some time. Universities overall have become highly dependent on a flow of international students here. It is the most important export. It has huge benefits, it seems to me, beyond the financial benefits. But of course, that stream of international students has really collapsed.
And I hope I’m not being too pessimistic, but I think the [02:00] recovery is actually going to be relatively slow. My university, Western Sydney University is a little bit less affected because I’ve never been above 15% of overseas students. But, of course, many other universities, including the Group of Eight are over 30%.
So, that loss of fees, which is being used to cross-subsidise research and give universities their international standing has faded. At the same time, the Government has removed the demand-driven system, which has affected my university, of course, because Western Sydney is an area of enormous growth, and for the last couple of years, I’ve had to be accepting students in where I don’t get the Government CGS payment for those students.
So, it is a real challenge. Government needed to act and unfortunately, I suspect it really doesn’t go to the heart of [03:00] the matter.
Ginger: A lot of people have described these changes, especially the fee structures around the liberal arts as ideological changes and have said this is a kind of a battleground where you’ve got a neoliberal government essentially attacking the arts. How do you respond to those kinds of comments?
Peter: I actually hate putting a label on like ‘neoliberal’ because I think it hides a great deal of what’s happening. Let’s be clear here. My experience is that there is a bipartisan view, right or wrong, that higher education, university education has almost done too well, that there is a view that I’ve heard on both sides of parliament, of both sides of politics over the last six months, as I’ve done research into senior secondary education that, in fact, students are being deterred from doing vocational education.
And I think it’s quite a common view [04:00] that perhaps we’ve reached a stage where too many Australians are now going to university rather than doing vocational education. So, in the sense what the Government are doing is coming out of almost that bipartisan view of universities.
Their approach has been instrumentalist, very utilitarian, Clearly, the way it has announced the change to fee structures is to focus on what they see as areas of jobs growth into the future, choosing those occupations. And in a sense, I have no problem with a government which meets 55% of the cost of universities setting priorities.
The difficulty with it I think is if you’re going to be utilitarian, if you’re going to be instrumentalist, understand that there are two things you want out of university. One, prepare people for the future workforce, but also [05:00], prepare people for active citizenship in democracy.
The challenge we’ve got, of course, is the future workforce is uncertain. That’s why I think you need to teach people to be able to be creative, to do complex problem solving, to work collaboratively because my view is, if you become too technical in what you do at university, you’re going to undermine people whose careers are going to change and whose skills are going to change over the next 10, 20, 30 years.
Ginger: Now, I want to pull out three different things out of what you’ve just said. The first one is you’ve just mentioned active citizenship and talking about preparing kids for their future. So, what’s your concern there that we’re not perhaps preparing kids properly for the future, especially given how uncertain the world is at the moment?
Peter: Well, what do we want out of education, whether we’re talking secondary education, vocational education, or higher education? It seems to [06:00] me that what we want most of all at the moment is the capacity to let people leave school, or TAFE, or university with the ability to keep on learning throughout their life. The part of that is learning for life in that it makes your life richer that you’ve done that, but you need to learn for life to be both prepared for a changing workforce and for active citizenship. That’s what I think you’ve got to have. So, you’ve got to look at those underlying attributes that you want to come through education.
Now, my view is people have been very focused on the impact of cognitive technology on the workforce of the future and the way robotics and big data analytics etc. is now going to transform not just many trades, but many professions. But what they haven’t been focused on is actually we are now, compared with 30 years, living in a democracy that’s under threat. There is [07:00] declining faith in democratic governments, especially amongst young people.
So, I’m as concerned about preparing people for democratic governments as I am for preparing them for the workforce of the future.
Ginger: What is the threat that you see in terms of the world’s democracies?
Peter: Well, I think we have seen, if you like, the return of the strong men. I remember to when I was back, a public servant, 30 years ago, I wasn’t fully persuaded, but I read with great interest the work of Francis Fukuyama on The End of History, which suggested, and I thought this was broadly right for my life that secular liberal democracies had won the ideological battle against communism. Now, you would be much, much less certain that that was the case.
You’ve seen real challenges, I think, of authoritarianism in established democracies, a decline [08:00] in faith in expertise are driven, I think, by social media, a very tribal politics now emerging. And one of the things I think that a university must give is the capacity to be able to hear two sides of an argument and make your own views. That’s becoming increasing difficult at the moment where people tend to, either because of their own choice or because of algorithms they don’t see, they get fed to them only voices that largely reflect their own world view.
I purposely subscribe to The Guardian and to President Trump’s daily Tweets just to try and confuse the algorithms, who think they will then know what is the political views I want to hear.
Ginger: It’s funny you say that, Peter, because often when I’m talking about cyberhate, which I have expertise in, I get asked these questions and I say, “Why are we so afraid to disagree? [09:00] Why do you have to have everybody who follows you agreeing with what you’re saying?” But these are skills that perhaps were once taught, say, when you were at university, but I’m not sure that kids today are being taught this stuff.
Peter: Well, what’s happened, and I think it does go back to school education, senior secondary education, the report that I’d just given to the commonwealth doesn’t seek to abolish ATAR, which is of course, a ranking tool for universities. But it is saying that that ATAR tool is distorting secondary education in profound ways that then flow on into the tertiary sphere.
What do we want from people when they’re getting educated? You want them to get excited about something to follow their passion, whatever that is. And yet, if you go onto social media, if you go onto Dr. Google and look at ATAR, you’ll find all these sites telling you how to game the system, often suggesting you don’t do advanced-level [10:00] subjects because you may get a lower ATAR.
Meanwhile, of course, this score has come to define how well a school does with students in the HSC, which is madness. It’s a university ranking tool. I think it’s the only one I know in the world that gives a single score, but nevertheless, that’s what it does.
Now, what that does, when students at school are about 15, Year 10, quite unnecessarily, it starts to divide them. Are you going to go to university, or are you going to go into a trade and vocational education? You don’t need to do that.
Ginger: This is interesting because you’ve got expertise in vocational education. I know you’ve been doing a lot of work for the New South Wales Government and COAG around that stuff, but also, you’ve got expertise in higher education. They are almost being pitted against each other ideologically, not just in the media, but also by Government. Is one better than the other or is this a false [11:00] kind of dichotomy?
Peter: I think it is absolutely a false dichotomy. I believe that, in fact, when students finish school, what we know increasingly is they will do some university qualifications, they’ll do some vocational qualifications. Increasingly, they will be expected to be micro-credentialling. There are all sorts of pathways. But at school at 16, we’re almost saying, “You have to choose in this way.”
There is this quality being given to academic subjects. To your key point, no. I think whether at university, or TAFE, or school, what we need to be ensuring is that young people understand what it is they’re acquiring: creating thinking, complex problem solving, collaborative teamwork, ability to work on your own, etc. These are qualities that you’re going to need.
Now, here’s my point. You can learn that studying advanced level maths. You can learn [12:00] it studying history. You can learn it, in my view, doing a vocational subject at school, business management. But I also believe that you learn these skills in other ways.
So, what I want to do at school is have people when they have their HSC, have a learning profile that also identifies how you’ve picked up those skills. Collaborative teamwork, for example, you could be learning collaborative teamwork in the netball team. You can learn it working as a volunteer for the Red Cross, doing evening shifts at MacDonalds. So, what we need to do through teachers is help people actually understand how they’re acquiring these skills.
Ginger: One of the things you talked about a few minutes ago was to do with money. And some of these [13:00] changes, the Government has been talking about universities being budget neutral. And Professor Ian Hickie, who I spoke to earlier in the podcast series was furious about this, the idea that universities will be budget neutral and that education will be seen as a business almost. How would you respond to those ideas?
Peter: There is no doubt that, in my view, education is absolutely the foundation of a fair go society. It is above all else, the foundation, which opens up opportunity. So, you’ve got to put sufficient funds into that in order to have that fair and equal society.
You also need, and this is where the Government’s coming from, to invest in education if you’re going to have a workforce that can, once again, start to improve productivity going forward. I’ve got no problem with that being as one of the goals. But we’ve got to decide, I suppose, where we want to invest our educational dollar, secondary and tertiary [14:00] and we’ve got to make a decision on what do we think is the fair cost that a student themselves should pay, particularly when they get into tertiary education.
Now, at the moment, I think a university student on average, pays about 43%, and under these new arrangements, I think it will be 46%, 47% of the cost of their university degree. Well, is that balance right? I suspect that’s probably okay, given that we’ve got this very innovative scheme that you only have to repay your part of the cost on the basis of your income later in life.
The area, of course, we’re really weak on is the sufficient money coming into the research budget. And what we don’t want to see, and is what tends to happen now is money is coming out of teaching, domestic teaching, overseas student teaching, in order to subsidise the research, which of course, is vital for our future.
Ginger: Ian Hickie was also concerned [15:00] that with the new proposed fee structures, we weren’t actually giving young people options for the future. We were, in fact, cutting off a major source of hope for their future, especially during COVID when things are so uncertain for young people. Do you think he’s right about that?
Peter: Well, society has to make some decisions. When I went to university, which was a long, long, long time ago, it was free. I thought, “Well, that’s great.” But I have to tell myself, “I think when I went to university, 2.8% of students went to university.”
We’ve made a choice, perhaps not an explicit choice that we want more and more students to benefit from university education on the basis you can’t let them all go for free. So, what we’ve done is devised a system where they make a contribution to those costs, which they repay when their income allows it.
So, the basic structure I think is right. Having said that [16:00], I think the allocation of money to primary and secondary education, and as I’ve said, particularly in vocational education is probably not sufficient. And one of the challenges we’ve got is, of course, the Government has introduced effect demand caps.
So, normally in a situation like this, and in fact, I can already see it happening at my university, you get what we call a countercyclical demand for university. As unemployment rises, more people decide to go or return to university education. Well, that’s happening, but we’re not being funded for that flow of students who want to come in because there is a cap. So, for my university, that is a particular financial issue that we face.
Ginger: And as you said, it’s interesting in terms of COVID, lots of international students are now not putting money into the system [17:00], so the Government’s going to struggle even more to fund university education.
Peter: I think the thing that has most distressed me with COVID-19 and university students is these students have a huge beneficial impact for us. Put aside that, a significant minority then end up staying here, or returning here as permanent residents, Australian trained.
And as you know, if you go anywhere around the world, which I used to go with John Howard, you would always put on, if you could, events for alumni for Australian universities. And you realised the amount of goodwill you have created from that, people to people linkages. So, it is a huge beneficial impact and yet, in effect, we almost said to them, “Go home now. We’ve got COVID-19.”
So, I am distressed that it’s been State Governments, but particularly universities themselves [18:00] that have actually had to step into the breech. So, as a university, extraordinarily, I think, I’m having to provide food packages, accommodation, support for overseas students, who have lost their jobs because of COVID-19 and are not picked up by any other payments.
Now, when you’re sending out those messages, my worry is even when international travel returns, and I think it’s going to be slower than faster, but even when it does, what sort of messages are we sending out to students who we would like to study here?
Ginger: Yes. I heard a news report about the numbers of overseas students in Australia, who were in the lines for people who are usually homeless and so forth, trying to get food, and trying to get some kind of accommodation and so forth.
Peter: I’ve got significant numbers of my people who work at the university now, who are under pressure themselves, contributing to [19:00] funds, I’ve got all of myself and the board at the university, an amazing response from alumni giving money to support overseas students, who don’t have a source of income. Well, that’s wonderful at one level, but really, really, is that the message that we want to send out to overseas students and those who are thinking of coming here in the future?
Ginger: Peter, you’ve talked a little bit about your major report for COAG and what was in that report, and how you want to prepare young people for an uncertain future. But what else can you tell me about your major findings?
Peter: That number one is that ATAR is distorting the senior secondary system in general. There are hero schools and hero teachers who are doing a great job, but overall, the quality of vocational education taught in schools is not as high as it should be and is limited. And worst, many of the students, and I’ve spoken to lots of them [20:00] at workshops I run, feel that if they choose vocational education, it is as if they’re second class within the system. So, my report deals with that, which is why it suggests we need a learning profile and emphasises you can pick up skills and attributes in a number of ways.
I also discovered, and this was a bit of an eye opener to me, that the quality of careers advice and guidance is again, on the whole, pretty poor. There are schools where that’s not the case. There are teachers who are really committed, but in general, across Australia, what I notice is overall, the quality of pastoral care at schools seems to have significantly improved in the last 15 years, and what a great thing that is.
But at the same time, it seems to me the quality of career advice and guidance has gone down. Young people need professional career guidance. And again, this is one of the problems. Everybody [21:00] who gives them guidance at school is a teacher. What they know about is university. They’ve got degrees. So, you need people who can talk about school-based apprenticeships and doing plumbing or taking a trade option. We don’t have it. We’ve got to improve that quality.
Ginger: Especially because we know that young people are going to change careers at least five times in their lifetime, which is very different to, say, my father’s generation, or your generation that may have gone into the public service and been there for 30 years. These kids are not going to do that.
Peter: That’s absolutely right. So, we know one of two things are going to happen. Either you’ll change your careers four or five times, particularly professionals. But equally important, the occupation you have, the skills required for it will undoubtedly keep changing.
If you just think of what an auto mechanic does today compared with 15 years ago, if you imagine what a lawyer is doing today and how different it will be [22:00] in 10 years’ time, do we really think that the mainstay of many regional solicitors is going to be conveyancing when it’s going to be possible to use big data analytics for people to do it themselves.
So, you may be still a lawyer for your career, but the skills you’re going to require, I suspect are going to change fundamentally.
Ginger: It’s a bit terrifying, though, I’ve got to say, as the mother of young children, thinking I perhaps don’t have the skills that I need to teach them what they need for the future.
Peter: But you see, I think you do have, but what we’ve got to do is start to be explicit about those skills. Inevitably, when my daughter went through school and now I see my grandchildren going, you tend to focus on the subject they’re doing, whether it’s maths, or English, or history, and we all tend to forget that that has got an intrinsic value, but it is also a means to an end.
What we’re teaching people is how to read, how to [23:00] write, how to communicate, how to solve problems, how to give respect to other people’s points of view, [inaudible 23:08] coming to your own views, how to work as part of a team, collaboration. This is actually what you’re learning. So, I think we can convey that.
What’s happening I think is too rarely at school, at TAFE, at university are we saying, “What you’re learning here is not just the subject content, but by learning that subject content, you are learning learning skills that are going to serve you right through your life.”
Ginger: And through the fires and COVID, I’ve been thinking a lot about how do we teach people resilience because we don’t know what the future’s going to look like.
Peter, before I let you go, I read a really interesting article and you gave this quote talking about learning to be a better listener. And while we’re talking about learning, you had this long [24:00] career in the public service, how did you suddenly realise you weren’t a good listener and realised that you wanted to fix that?
Peter: Well, I think my family helped actually because it’s often been said I can talk under wet cement. Listening is another matter. It’s not that I didn’t listen, but the reason I suppose I’ve had a successful career is I tend to be a problem solver, get it done. Here’s the crisis. This is how we’re going to deal with it. And it actually was from my family that often when they would be telling me there was a problem, I would go into work mode and instantly suggest this is how to solve it. And it took me time to listen, “No, no, no. Can you just stop? All we want you to do is listen for a while.”
And I realised, actually, I was doing this at work. And if I wasn’t careful, I would start to be taking complete ownership of that issue and it did dawn on me that two things went wrong there. [25:00] First, if I listened to people, my ability to solve the problem was often better because people brought a diversity of skills, and experience and knowledge that actually improved the decision making.
But equally important, I realised if all I was doing in the workplace is seeming to make the decision, people didn’t have ownership either of the problem or the solution. So, and this is genuinely true, in my years as PM&C to try not always successfully to train myself, I would go into meetings with a notepad, but there was usually only one word on the top of the notepad, which hopefully other people didn’t see, which was the word ‘listen’.
That’s why, as a public servant, I never looked back to the great days of public servants when really, they were able to tell their ministers what to do. My view is [26:00] that you had to win the ear of your minister. And I had to learn that if ministers were listening to other people and not just myself, that was actually beneficial, not a detriment. Monopoly is never good and monopoly in advice is particularly bad.
And then, what happened I found is if you do listen then the other quality that you’re meant to have, that some of us, like myself, have to learn, which is empathy, empathic listening, tends to come because, if you start to listen to people and if they’ve got authentic experience, it can help.
I work with refugees in New South Wales now as Coordinator General of Refugee Resettlement. And I had learned so much from simply listening to the challenges refugees face, listening to the strengths they’ve got and then, and only then thinking, “Well, this probably would be a good policy response.” [27:00]
Ginger: Peter, thank you so much for your time.
Peter: Thank you very much indeed. I’ve enjoyed it.
[End of recorded material 27:05]