Unis should get together with TAFEs as a way of being more efficient says minister

by Robert BoltonThe federal education minister would like to see a stronger connection between universities and the vocational education sector.

Senator Simon Birmingham says universities should be thinking about collaboration between TAFEs and universities – physically with buildings but also about the benefits from partnerships between the two sectors in other areas.

The comment came in a wide-ranging interview by the minister with The Australian Financial Review looking at ways of getting greater efficiency from the sector ahead of the Universities Australia conference in Canberra this week.

Senator Birmingham told the Financial Review there were clear opportunities for universities to offer vocational education providers resources that were otherwise idle in summer and winter breaks. This would get a maximum benefit from the capital tied up in buildings and ensure value in delivery of higher education and vocational training.

Universities Australia chief executive Belinda Robinson said the nation's universities were more efficient than many ...
Universities Australia chief executive Belinda Robinson said the nation’s universities were more efficient than many other large institutions – and always seeking to be more so. Wayne Taylor

Asked if this might mean lending university academic staff to teach in vocational programs, the minister said it was up to the universities to think how best to boost productivity but some universities were well placed for dual-sector relationships.

Apart from the VET sector he would like to see better use of university capital.

“If unis genuinely look for efficiencies then there are staffing issues and marketing issues, but clearly maximising the use of their capital is important. Trimesters are a holy trinity of outcomes for students, faster courses, less time out of workforce for students, improved utilisation of staff as well as improved utilisation of capital.”

On the issue of teaching flexibility the minister said academics with limited research output should be allowed to spend more time on teaching.

Changing entities

"I would like to see flexibility for staff to shape their time. We will move to a more flexible approach." Ian Jacobs, ...
“I would like to see flexibility for staff to shape their time. We will move to a more flexible approach.” Ian Jacobs, chair of the G8. Christopher Pearce

This relates to the 40 /40 /20 rule embedded in many university EBAs, which specifies an academic should be required to teach for 40 per cent of the time, research for 40 per cent and spend the balance in administration. Many universities have negotiated away from these exact numbers but the idea of specifying time for each of these activities is part of most agreements.

“Unis have shifted from entities of higher learning focused on the development of capabilities to entities that are directly engaged in training people for particular pursuits. The growth in vocationally-oriented eduction begs a question whether some staff need as much time for research purposes or others for teaching.

“I don’t believe we are going to proscribe the way universities are going to manage themselves. A focus on performance is the objective,” he said.

Senator Birmingham’s idea was echoed by the chair of the Group of Eight universities, professor Ian Jacobs, who said it was inevitable there would be more teaching load in most universities. It made sense for some teachers to have an education-based role and others based on research.

"Trimesters are a holy trinity of outcomes for students, faster courses, less time out of workforce for students, ...
“Trimesters are a holy trinity of outcomes for students, faster courses, less time out of workforce for students, improved utilisation of staff as well as improved utilisation of capital.” Simon Birmingham. Tamara Voninski

“Where academics are outstanding educators they should be able to have valued, respected careers as teachers and similarly for researchers.”

Professor Jacobs, who is also vice-chancellor of the University of NSW, said students who want to come to Australia pay enormous attention to global rankings and those are dependent on the research function of universities.

“I would like to see flexibility for staff to shape their time. We will move to a more flexible approach.”

On productivity, the education minister said expenditure across the university sector in 2016 outstripped revenue and it would be helpful if, when the sector got together, it looked at how to drive its dollars further and achieve efficiencies.

‘Australia’s university system is one of the most efficient in the world’

He acknowledged there was a place for marketing and football teams in university budgets (which he had previously criticised) but said there was still a question over which universities were effectively managing their overheads.

Universities Australia chief executive Belinda Robinson said the nation’s universities were more efficient than many other large institutions – and always seeking to be more so.

And the minister’s acknowledgement of marketing budgets was welcome.

But the sector’s commitment to efficiency should not detract from the budget pressure on universities in the wake of the $2.2 billion funding cuts unveiled in December.

“Let’s keep in mind that global benchmarking actually shows that Australia’s university system is one of the most efficient in the world – and always striving to hone that efficiency further,” she said.

Senator Birmingham rejected the idea of a post-secondary education review, which was first raised by the Group of Eight several weeks ago and was adopted as policy by Labor last week.

“Some people love to use a review to float their pet hobbies,” Senator Birmingham said. “We are better off focusing on improvement. Steadily and carefully. We don’t want to spend time in never-ending naval gazing.”

The tertiary sector has criticised the minister for plans to introduce performance thresholds as a trigger for money for new students from 2020. This followed the freeze on money for new students for 2018 and 2019 – a saving of at least $2 billion.

Senator Birmingham how these would work is yet to be determined. While the traditional short-term employment results for graduates was a useful measurement of university success, he said he would consider longer-term outcomes to get a better knowledge of university performance over time.

“Universities should engage in this process. They should be happy that they are held to account.”

Read more: http://www.afr.com/news/policy/education/unis-should-get-together-with-tafes-as-a-way-of-being-more-efficient-says-minister-20180223-h0wjw9#ixzz58BTl8OC8
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