A demand for greater collaboration and respect for the needs of the students are some of the biggest issues facing the tertiary education sector in Western Australia at the moment, according to attendees of the latest AIM WA/WestBusiness CEO Voice roundtable discussion, titled The Business of Tertiary Education and Training: Issues, Challenges and Opportunities.

Attended by a diverse range of representatives from across the tertiary education sector, including a student guild president, the lunch session covered some pertinent ideas for how to rectify the issues being faced.

Of the many points raised, there appeared to be one overarching solution; collaboration.

In his opening address, AIM WA Chief Executive Officer Gary Martin FAIM offered some questions for the attendees to consider with regard to collaboration. He asked whether the current level of collaboration between the higher education and the vocational education and training (VET) sector was adequate, and whether there was room for a dual sector university in WA.

The other question Professor Martin posed on this topic was whether WA should look to university mergers, an idea currently being pondered in South Australia between The University of Adelaide and The University of South Australia.

The overall opinion in the room was collaboration is a must if the tertiary education sector in WA as a whole is going to progress.

In addition to his role as Edith Cowan University Senior Deputy Vice-Chancellor, Arshad Omari sits on the board of North Metropolitan TAFE, and was able to offer insight into both education pathways. 

“The sectors need to work better together,” Professor Omari said. “We have got everything in place but everything we do is so different, and it makes interaction with students so much harder.”

Professor Omari said interaction with students was a key marker in changing the perception of tertiary education in the state, suggesting a “market of one” mentality was the best way forward.

“We need to be more flexible in our thinking and understanding what the needs of the individual are,” he said.
“Students are all different and have different requirements; some of them want to study at North Metropolitan TAFE and ECU at the same time. We need to be able to facilitate that and deal with them on an individual basis to meet their needs.”

Focusing on the distinct needs of students was a point raised by Sheridan College Academic Principal Natalie Leitao, who said the school’s relatively small student base played to its advantage.

“The student experience is something we must always keep sight of,” she said. “It’s not about delivering the product, it’s about what it’s like for the recipient and making sure we know our students.

“We can do that because we’re small and developing the culture for the future.”

Curtin University Vice Chancellor Deborah Terry AO FAIM said coordination between the VET sector and universities was a good idea, but felt a unified system would spell disaster.

“There needs to be much clearer pathways between the two,” she said. “Instead of having to negotiate things on a course by course basis, which simply isn’t workable, we have to have more principle-based agreements between the two sectors.”

Greater collaboration was also endorsed by StudyPerth Executive Director Phil Payne FAIM, but the collaboration Mr Payne referred to was between the tertiary education sector and other government departments, such as workforce planning, tourism and international migration.

The benefit of doing this would enhance WA’s international student population.

“They are doing this very well in Queensland,” Mr Payne said. “All of their departments know each other’s aims and are working in harmony for the benefit of the international education sector.”

The issue of international students in WA is a big cause for concern as revealed by figures recently released by the Australian Government Department of Education and Training. 

Based on the number of student visas being processed at the end of May 2018 compared with May 2017, WA is one of the worst performing states in the country.

In the higher education sector, international student commencements in WA dropped 0.4 per cent from 4782 to 4762.
“That might appear insignificant, however, during the same time New South Wales rose nine per cent to 30,557 commencing students, Victoria rose 12 per cent to 31,512 students and Queensland rose 13 per cent to 11,663 students,” Professor Martin said.

“Probably more alarming, South Australia rose six per cent to 4889 students.”

Chris Thurmott is a Senior Journalist for The West Australian and he writes for a variety of different publications including Leader and National Mining Chronicle.