Twenty-five years ago today I started my career in higher education policy – although I did not then know I was starting a career rather than a job – when I began in education minister David Kemp’s office as his higher education adviser. Since leaving this role I have been a higher education policy adviser to University of Melbourne vice-chancellors, the higher education program director at the Grattan Institute, and now ‘professor in the practice of higher education policy’ at the ANU.
Few people spend most of their careers in higher education policy. Career paths are limited or at least not easily planned in advance. Three of my four higher education jobs did not exist before I was appointed to them. At various points I considered alternative careers but higher education policy opportunities appeared and I took them.
Since the late 1990s a higher education policy career has, at least in one respect, become easier. Based on my interactions as a ministerial adviser only a handful of university staff at the time had primary responsibilities including government relations and/or higher education policy. Contact was usually made by senior university staff responsible for whatever issue they had to raise, or matters were delegated to the Australian Vice-Chancellors’ Committee (later Universities Australia).
When I started my U of M adviser role, leaving the government after the first of my major higher education political failures, it was a new position. Since the late 1990s, however, new higher education lobby groups and a proliferation of university policy adviser positions have made this kind of higher education policy work easier to find. What influence these advisers have on the direction of institutional and public policy is not clear, but their jobs create career options and a policy community that were not there before.
In other areas, however, higher education policy careers are more difficult. Regular public service ‘efficiency dividends’ have reduced the chance of a job in the Department of Education’s higher education division. The remaining staff spend too much of their time administering counter-productively complex and bureaucratic policies. Senior jobs often go to people with generic public service skills rather than specific higher education expertise.
The Department’s policy analysis and development capacity has been undermined in other ways too. It used to commission research regularly, but now this happens only occasionally. The exception is long-term support for equity research, which is worthwhile in itself but creates an imbalance. We have much more research on small-scale equity programs than multi-billion dollar programs such as the Commonwealth Grant Scheme, HELP and student income support.
The higher education sector also shows a surprising lack of curiosity about itself. The academics working regularly on higher education policy issues are small in number and scattered around the country, with no institution possessing the critical mass needed to pursue a major research agenda outside of equity issues – and equity research would be stronger if integrated with work on the bigger programs that ultimately drive opportunities for equity students.
Politics has its own imperatives and a strong policy community cannot guarantee good policy. But the last few years of government higher education policy have sometimes seemed like one of those Twitter threads that start with ‘wrong answers only’. Would Job-ready Graduates have made it through the policy process if we had accessible research on the drivers of student choices and university supply decisions? If we better understood the relationships between student debt, repayment times, and HELP’s costs to government?
The state of the higher education policy community means that Labor’s Universities Accord process, which sounds like a comprehensive review of higher education policy, is a high risk project. The university submissions will probably be of higher average quality than 20 years ago, but only a limited pool of people have the knowledge and experience needed to produce a politically feasible policy with a reasonable chance of achieving its goals.