Structures in tertiary education and training: a kaleidoscope or merely fragments? Research readings

By Francesca Beddie, Penelope Curtin, Laura O'Connor Research report 24 June 2013 ISBN 978 1 922056 50 4


In this eclectic collection of papers, 13 essayists and four high-profile discussants consider the complexity of the tertiary education system and its underlying structures. The papers are clustered by themes: how educational matters influence the system's structures; who controls the system; how the system is governed in a competitive environment; and how individuals interact with the system to ensure they get quality offerings. Each theme is considered by a leading thinker in the area of education, policy or economics.

Although a wide range of perspectives are offered, one key theme emerges — there is no simple 'market design' which would meet all the objectives of the various elements of Australia's tertiary education system.


About the research

In June 2010 the Standing Council on Tertiary Education, Skills and Employment (SCOTESE) adopted a new set of national research priorities in tertiary education and training for the period 2011 to 2013. One of these pointed to the need to better understand structures in the system by examining the impact of policy, funding and market frameworks on the provision of education and training. Since very few researchers have investigated these issues, the National Centre for Vocational Education research (NCVER) decided to commission essays on various aspects of the topic. We hoped to throw light on the structures in the evolving tertiary education system and to take forward debate about the current wave of reform.

The authors and four discussants came together with other leaders in the system in November 2012 to talk about the essays. Given the complexity of these issues, it is quite difficult to distil the discussions into a few simple messages. Nevertheless, some of the key points were:

  • A common understanding of the dynamics of the system is not easy to reach. We are still not all talking about the same thing when we refer to tertiary education.
  • There is little support for a single integrated tertiary education sector. If there is a consensus it is that variety within the sector is a good thing.
  • While the language of markets has been adopted in the reform effort, we need to be clear we are talking about a very unusual market, both in terms of its 'product' and its 'customers'. In fact, there is a dispute over who is the customer of the vocational education and training (VET) system — the individual student or the employers who ultimately employ those that the system educates and trains.
  • Even within the sectors, there is not always consensus on definitions. This is notably the case when discussing the meaning of 'vocation' and the shape of competency-based training.
  • To establish the underpinnings and value of each part of the system, we need greater clarity about the purpose of public funding, as well as a clear alignment between funding regimes and policy objectives. The issue is who should pay for what.
  • Many pillars of the system can be strengthened. How institutions are governed, and how the workforce is organised and the system regulated require further thought. The extent of institutional autonomy is a key element.

While this exercise could never determine the ideal structures for tertiary education and training, it has been invaluable in teasing out the complexity of tertiary education. It also makes clear there is no simple 'market design' that would meet all the objectives of the various elements of Australia's tertiary education system.

Tom Karmel
Managing Director, NCVER


Structures-in-tertiary-education-2616 .pdf 2.1 MB Download
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