The transformed future

The transformed future

By 2040, it will make little sense to talk about “the” Australian university.

If we take the transformation path described below, there will be a range of organisations, some with the title university, some without it, delivering programs of varying lengths and with varying types of recognition.

By 2040, the tertiary scene – to use a term designed not to imply that a definable “sector” exists any more – will be shaped by the decisions we make over the next few years. As at 2019, we have a post-secondary system which is out of balance within itself and with the society it serves.

Higher education has expanded, to the detriment of vocational education and training (VET), although VET’s woes have been compounded by policy failure, inconsistent regulation, the absence of a national tertiary system and old-fashioned bad behaviour.

University graduate outcomes are generally positive but there is a persistent gap between the long-term earnings of male and female graduates¹. There is also a gap between the skills that employers need, according to successive Skill Shortage Lists, and the supply of labour. The market is failing to respond to skill shortages by delivering sufficiently higher earnings in those areas which would normally attract growth.

Possible explanations for the persistent gender gap and the persistent skill shortages are similar. If the gender pay gap is the product of attitudes, power relations and the division of domestic labour, which outweigh the rationality of a market seeking out the best talent, the current skill shortages may be the product of attitudes about VET compared with higher education – the power of certain parts of society such as large corporates and the city, and the feminisation of some kinds of jobs, in the sense that many typically feminised occupations are often lower paid.

If we crudely summarise the gender gap as being the product of patriarchy, we can summarise the skills gap as the product of a class system. Neither has a place in a modern society and the future tertiary scene depends on what we do about it. Of the many possible futures, two stark alternatives can be sketched;

which I will call the disrupted future and the transformed future. The difference between disruption and transformation is the difference between allowing external forces to determine our future versus taking charge of our own future and engaging with reform.

The disrupted future

The disrupted future, by 2040, is one where institutions and policy makers have been incapable of effective action. Interest groups have circled the wagons to protect current  perceived advantage. Policy-makers have lacked vision and awareness of the deep shifts in the world around them, particularly about technologies heading our way and the global rebalancing of power between East and West. Politicians have been concerned only with the short-term, driven by brief electoral terms, a polarised community and a 24-hour news cycle.

The result has been the collapse of some universities in outer urban areas, and the life-support existence of regional universities, kept afloat only by regional loadings and special schemes.

Similarly, some TAFE Institutes have gone under, and attempts to group them into wider systems have faltered because the essence of their work is a direct connection with place and local communities.


Large corporate providers of micro-credentials have grown significantly, and some employers have come to prefer these, with the consequence that the 3-year degree continues but is substantially reduced, and many institutions in reality only provide years 2 and 3 because year 1 has been effectively outsourced to pathways providers.

Private registered training organisations do provide a significant amount of training, as they do today, but they do not operate in thin markets or in fields of education that are capital intensive with long pay-back times. Some regional communities have died, in consequence.

The transformed future

A transformed future is the product of some serious thought about the three types of knowledge: knowing why (in Aristotle’s terms, episteme); knowing how (techne) and knowing what to do (phronesis, or practical wisdom).

Rather than embody all three, in different mixes, in every tertiary institution, Australia in the latter part of the 20th Century developed a system whereby they were more strictly separated as between universities, vocational providers and the workplace. A transformed tertiary scene will be an ecosystem of providers, accredited to offer some or all entries in an Australian Qualifications Framework.

The AQF will be seen not as a ladder, but as a chassis. Different providers bring innovation and energy to different types of offering and they are accredited if they can do them well and sustainably. The aim is not to be at the top of a single ladder, but to be the best in type.² No one knows what the effect of the so-called 4th Industrial Revolution will be. That’s the point of this.

All we can predict is that new mixes of the three types of knowledge will be required and we need to encourage regulated innovation to respond to changing circumstances. It is up to us, in 2019, to chart a way to a transformed future.


1See Is Tertiary Education Worth It? KPMG, November 2018.

2See the ideas developed in Reimagining Tertiary Education: From Tertiary System to Ecosystem, KPMG, August 2018.


Stephen began his career in law, working in private practice and academia in the UK. Over the last 30 years he has held a number of

high-profile roles in the Australian education sector including the Vice-Chancellor and President, University of Canberra, Senior Deputy Vice-Chancellor and Vice-President, Monash University and most recently, Director of Global, Development and Strategy at The Conversation.

In 2014, Stephen received the Order of Australia for “distinguished services to tertiary education through administrative, academic and representational roles, and as a leader in the growth and development of the University of Canberra”. As KPMG Australia’s National Sector Leader Stephen continues his passion for Australia’s social and economic future through improvements in education and research outcomes. He leads our work across all parts of the sector including higher education, vocational and training and school education.

Stephen is a music lover and was the lead guitarist in the undiscovered University of Canberra band, The Hip Replacements. He supports a British soccer team which last won a major trophy when The Beatles were still playing together.

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