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Labor said they would establish Commonwealth Institutes of Higher Education at ten sites across Australia. David Crossling/AAP

Is Labor’s plan to create ten Institutes of Higher Education a good idea?

Senator Kim Carr has announced that a Labor government would establish Commonwealth Institutes of Higher Education at ten sites across Australia, on a trial basis.

They would involve universities and TAFE Institutes working together to deliver associate degrees and advanced diplomas.

At a total cost of A$430 million, 10,000 Commonwealth Supported Places would be available. These “HECS” places would be funded at 70% of the normal rate.

This essentially creates a new layer of tertiary education. Students could study a two year sub-bachelor, higher education course at one of these institutions, then if they wish to complete a full degree they would receive credit for study to date.

At that stage they would go on to a normal HECS place at a university, which would be 100% funded during the final year.

The idea, it seems, is to have a network of such tertiary education institutions, bringing together the best of applied higher education and vocational skills training into institutions that are not funded to do research.

As with Colleges of Advanced Education which disappeared in the Dawkins Reforms of 1989-90, these Institutes would be “higher education”, but the conceptual difference between vocational and higher education is increasingly blurred.

The two are kept apart by peculiarly Australian circumstances relating to federal-state funding differences, separate regulatory bodies and the language of the Australian Qualifications Framework.

How does it differ to TAFE?

At face value, this proposal could put the cat amongst the pigeons. There are already “dual sector” universities with Vocational and Higher Education Divisions, mainly in Victoria, burned by severe cuts to TAFE funding.

Elsewhere, there are well-established articulation arrangements between universities and TAFE institutes.

Due to the uncapped nature of undergraduate places, some universities are now admitting students into bachelor degrees who would otherwise have enrolled in associate degrees.

Having become used to funding for such students at 100% of the normal rate for each year of study, and presumably using some of that funding to cross-subsidise research, it is not clear why they would want to collaborate with TAFE and accept 70%.

In principle, however, I think this proposal is well worth experimenting with.

I have long argued for the need to introduce “polytechnic” institutions which bridge vocational education and training (VET) and higher education. These bodies would provide highly practical, industry-connected courses taught by staff whose focus does not include research per se.

In fact, in 2010-11 the University of Canberra applied for a Structural Adjustment Fund grant to do just this and establish the University of Canberra Institute of Technology, jointly with the Canberra Institute of Technology. It was rejected by then Labor education minister Chris Evans.


There are many students who would enjoy and benefit from highly practical, demanding courses. They may also be spared the unhappiness of dropping out of a bachelor degree because it is too long, or they cannot afford to live and study for that length of time, or because it is too theoretical or “academic” for them.

There are also many teachers who are presently distracted or distressed by the expectation of research, but who have much experience they could pass on to the future workforce.

Money, talent and enthusiasm could all be put to better use in a wider range of institutions funded for their particular mission.

Time, however, has moved on.

The uncapped undergraduate system is in full flood, as it were. The TAFE sector has been severely damaged as a result in my view, and some universities have become reliant on low-ATAR bachelor students to stay afloat.

Labor’s proposal emphasises that the location of the ten pilot sites will be chosen according to need and shortage. This is astute, but unless these institutes are set up where there is already a campus of some kind, the money would soon go in capital infrastructure.

Planned sites

It is very convenient that one of these sites will be at Berwick in Victoria, where Monash University wishes to exit and another university is willing to take it over. But it would be difficult to find ten Berwicks in parts of Australia where there is a sufficient population.

A further consideration is that these experiments are being dropped into a system where market forces have been embraced by both sides of politics as the organising element of higher education.

Markets will ultimately fail at university level. The uncapped, demand-driven system contained the seeds of its own destruction. We need to go back to that so “yesterday” idea of designing what we want.

In a submission to the Bradley Review in 2008, I argued we should look at the American idea of “system” universities, involving clearly differentiated institutions. These would be linked by agreement or governance, offering between them a comprehensive range of disciplines, qualifications and learning styles in a particular area.

I suspect, however, that the fetish of the market has not yet run its course.

In fact, the one big issue which all except one vice-chancellor seemed to agree on recently was, ironically, deregulation.

My prediction is that if Labor were returned, some of the ten Commonwealth Institutes of Higher Education would succeed and some would not.

If, on the other hand, leadership were to emerge which designed a tertiary system fit for Australia’s future needs, then many more such institutes could have an important and viable place.

I have learned not to hold my breath, except as part of a meditation cycle.

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