As Australia seeks new ways to sustain its prosperity and social cohesion, Australian universities are rethinking and revitalising their role in the broader tertiary education sector.

On 31 August 2019, Victoria University hosted a Roundtable with 40 leaders from the tertiary education, government, industry and not-for-profit sectors, to discuss this changing role. The Roundtable was part of the centenary celebrations for Sir Zelman Cowen, a visionary leader in Australian tertiary education whose openness to innovation remained vibrant throughout his lifetime.

The Roundtable reached agreement on one overarching idea: the need to achieve a more coherent, yet still differentiated, tertiary education system. There was considerable passion among the group for diversity in tertiary education, but also for greater coherence between provision options, including university, vocational education and training, and emerging models.

There was also broad agreement on responses to the five issues that were posed to the group:

  1. Participation in tertiary education must continue to grow, including growth in university enrolments, and a turnaround in the steep decline in enrolments in the VET sector.
  2. Pathways and credit were seen as important mechanisms for improving coherence in the tertiary education sector. Translating this enthusiasm into action remains technically hard, and requires all stakeholders to see that solutions are both worthwhile and achievable.
  3. Work and job readiness issues generated a lot of discussion, especially about generic or general skills, and work-integrated learning. Overall, the group felt that Australia could do more to achieve stronger relationships between tertiary education providers and industry.
  4. Financing challenges are closely linked to the need to grow participation, and the need to create a holistic financing model that levels the playing field between university and VET.
  5. Innovation was embraced as critical, including the need for more diversity in university provision. While competition has led to some differentiation, government may need to take a more active role in fostering innovation and collaboration, including through industry relationships will all kinds of tertiary education providers. A fundamental belief emerged among the group that teaching and learning must become more active and collaborative.

The Roundtable welcomed Minister Tehan’s commitment, in his opening address, to working with universities to shape the future of higher education. The Roundtable extended this hope for collaboration to include all levels of government, and all tertiary education providers.