As every home makeover television show confirms, clever renovations are those that keep the best of what is old while modernising from the new.
That’s also true of changes made to Australia’s higher education policy settings this year. Rather than a knockdown and rebuild, it has been more of a discerning renovation.
A series of reviews were handed to Government during the year: Peter Coaldrake on how to streamline categories of higher education providers; Peter Noonan on how to simplify post-school education qualifications; Denis Napthine on how to boost education access in rural, regional and remote communities; and a panel of five Vice-Chancellors who gave advice on how to design performance funding.
Each review knew the foundations of Australia’s university system are structurally sound and built to last.
Good design and maintenance have ensured quality workmanship on the foundations still serves the nation well.
Hence there were changes to some fittings and furnishings, but we have kept the “good bones” of the existing architecture.
Some of the renovations will continue into next year, as performance funding is finetuned and review recommendations are adopted, legislated and funded.
Federal Education Minister Dan Tehan has shown himself to be a consultative renovator.
He takes soundings often from Universities Australia and our leadership as the peak body for the sector.
He asks good questions in the many encounters he has with university leaders, staff and students — and with researchers and people whose lives have been transformed by university research.
Asking the right questions is key when thinking through changes to something as important as higher education and research policy.
So is listening carefully to feedback offered with genuine concern for the best policy framework.
Would a proposed change have unintended knock-on effects? How would it work in practice? Could we improve a proposal with a few commonsense tweaks?
Asking and listening are important aspects of the minister’s approach and style.
As he has delved into the detail of higher education, he has seen we all genuinely want Australia’s university system to be the best it can be.
It’s astute to test ideas, seek guidance and draw on the insights of people who have worked in universities and thought deeply about what helps them be their very best.
Each of us wants to safeguard the quality, competitiveness and strengths of our system to give Australia and Australians an edge in a world of ever more intense competition.
We want to ensure Australians have the opportunity to live fulfilling lives.
We know vast changes are unfolding in our economy, changing the nature of work, jobs and careers.
Today’s high schoolers will emerge into a world where the jobs you can do without further education will plunge dramatically.
We must equip Australians for this new world so our citizens are not left behind.
And we must continue to impart the analytical capabilities, creativity and entrepreneurial skills that Australians will need to get a job in the years ahead.
This is important nation-building work.
But our mission is much bigger than equipping each individual graduate to land their first job.
Universities also exist to push the boundaries of what we know about our world, to discover more about our planet, our minds and bodies, about our societies and our histories, and to share that knowledge with the world so we can all benefit from advances in science, medicine, technology, and our grasp of what makes humans tick.
Universities exist to give people skills to interpret, innovate and think outside the box; to renew and strengthen democracies and the freedoms we cherish; and they exist to tackle the big challenges and seize the big opportunities.
As we look ahead to the new year, we will seek to make our university system an even more ambitious home of knowledge and learning and scholarship.
We will work with Government to renew the “business case to business” about the benefits of collaborating with universities.
We will nurture Australia’s global influence and reach through our alumni – brilliant international students who have chosen an Australian university degree.
We will continue to nurture inspirational teaching and foster knowledge in our students.
And we will continue to chase breakthroughs in research to save lives, prevent pain, avert environmental disasters and make the most of Australia’s most precious resource — our people.
Like all renovators, we are always looking ahead.
An extra room will be needed for the Costello babies who start to turn 18 from 2021.
There will be 55,000 more of them each year by the end of the decade.
Universities and the Minister grasp this shared challenge. So do high school students and their families, right across the country.
We must ensure they have the same opportunities as their brothers and sisters. Because their future — and Australia’s — depends on it.
Originally published in The Australian.