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Filling the ‘polytechnic-sized hole’ in Australia’s education system

Filling the ‘polytechnic hole’ in Australian education

England’s experience with polytechnics holds insights for Australia as policy leaders and educational institutions look to reimagine Australia’s tertiary education system.

Martin Doel

Tertiary Education Subject Matter Expert

KPMG Australia


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Tertiary students in a classroom

The English and Australian education systems are some of the most similar that I see around the world. 

This said, there are significant differences in our two tertiary education systems – not least in terms of spatial geography and the division the Federal and State responsibilities for universities and TAFEs.

But one similarity that my contribution to the KPMG report Reimagining Tertiary Education – from binary system to ecosystem caused me to reflect upon was the emergence in both Australia and England of what could be called a ‘polytechnic-sized hole’ in our tertiary education systems.

The report recommends an ‘ecosystem’ approach, with different forms of excellence being recognised in institutions with differentiated missions – what the authors termed, “flipping the current hierarchical model on its side, with different types of provider each aiming to be best of their type in class”.

In that light, it could be useful to look at the experience in England and to see if there are any points for consideration in Australia, particularly as England moves to increase the provision of higher education that is directly focused on employment.

The English approach

In England, the tertiary education system is currently undergoing a large-scale review. Whilst much of the media attention given to the review has concentrated on the future of the income contingent loan system that currently funds higher education, there has also been a strong focus on redressing a rapid decline in the number of part-time and mature-aged students undertaking higher education, as well as the low incidence of sub-degree provision above upper secondary.

An important point about this sub-degree type of higher education is that it is predominantly teaching-led and most often intended to be responsive to the needs of business and careers.

It also corresponds closely to the ‘technician level’ jobs that are likely to be a key factor in unlocking productivity gains, but where there are significant recruitment gaps across the UK. In the past, these gaps have been filled by recruitment from the EU, but this source of labour is likely to reduce substantially in the face of strengthened immigration controls post-Brexit.

Polytechnics of the past

This level and type of education provision was a specialism of polytechnics in England, but this changed with the 1992 Education Act, when the former polytechnics and colleges of higher education were granted the opportunity to become universities, with the ability to confer their own degrees.

The former polytechnics responded by placing a focus on the provision of full 3 and 4-year bachelors’ degrees, mostly delivered to students on a residential basis. That is hardly surprising given the relative imbalance between funding rates for sub-degree and full-degree programmes, and the greater stability inherent in the full-degree ‘market’.

A resurgence in technical and professional education

A further pressure, also seen in Australia, was for the new universities to be research-led, or at the very least to be research-involved. As in Australia, the need to climb research-dominated international league tables in order to support the recruitment of international students was a further factor encouraging a move away from a teaching focus. Another more arguable factor is the relative social status accorded in the UK to traditional academic subjects, over more applied and vocational areas of study.

There are early signs of a reversal in this direction of travel in England, not least with the introduction of the Teaching Excellence Framework (TEF) which applies to all providers, irrespective of their status. This means that further education colleges, as the English TAFE equivalents, are judged on the same criteria as universities when they deliver higher education.

In the face of Brexit, the accepted need to improve productivity, and greater variability in the wage premium deriving from a full bachelors’ degree, there is also a resurgence in interest in what is increasingly being termed ‘technical and professional education or TPET’ (as opposed to VET). The development of higher and degree apprenticeships with employers working in conjunction with universities and colleges, is one sign of a return to more directly employment-focused higher education – similar to polytechnics.

Blurring independence?

Whether this polytechnic-like partnership approach amounts to the type of differentiated, but complementary and mission-led, higher education recommended for Australia in Reimagining Tertiary Education remains open to doubt.

There is a risk that in moving back to a polytechnic role, universities overlook the avowedly instrumental nature of VET; that firstly, it responds to employer needs and secondly, that it responds to placed-based needs.

In the case of responding to employer needs, the concept of academic autonomy is now deeply embedded within all universities in England, and not only within the traditional universities. Developing a curriculum with employers as a strong, and often necessarily predominant partner, runs counter to the perceived independence of many academic departments. So too does the implication that quality in such provision may be subject to different measures of excellence: for instance the number of teaching staff with recent industry experience.

Additionally, the emphasis upon teaching runs counter to the aspirations and expectations of many academic staff who see research as a key interest, and a means of career advancement.

The importance of place

In terms of responding to placed-based needs, the distinction between being an institution that is ‘for a place and of a place’ is relevant.

The former polytechnics in England were subject to a large measure of local authority oversight, albeit with quality assurance being exercised by a Council for National Academic Awards. With the move to university status, a greater degree of autonomy was accorded to the new universities. The shape of their overall curricula offer was no longer subject to local influence in the same way as pre-1992.

Whilst universities continue to be major players economically in their city or town, they are not for the people of that city or town; at most they respond to regional imperatives, but more often national and international demands.

If some universities seek to assume a more instrumental polytechnic type role, they will effectively need to accept some loss of autonomy, either voluntarily, or in order to access funding opportunities. Labour market intelligence will need to be a prime determinant of the curricula mix that they offer, staff profiles will need to change, and engagement with employers nationally and locally will need to be close and continuous in order ‘co-produce’ curriculum content.

The process of seeking such mission differentiation would not be easy, or welcome for many, if not most, universities in the UK and in Australia. If this is the case, it may be that further education colleges need to step into this role.

Part of a broader change

Reimagining Tertiary Education proposes greater role and mission differentiation through an ecosystem approach. Realising this vision will require changes to funding and regulation of the type recommended in the report, but it will also involve institutions thinking through the instrumental implications of such differentiation.

Further, if an ecosystem is to be created, we will need to think through how providers learn both to collaborate and compete to best serve the needs of students, communities, employers and the nation.

You can dive deeper into a fresh perspective on the future of education in Australia, in KPMG's Reimagining Tertiary Education report.

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