Why the Coalition Government should keep Labor’s biggest higher education reform
Published by The Sydney Morning Herald, Thursday 26 September 2013
When he spoke to a university conference in February, Tony Abbott suggested that a period of ‘’masterly inactivity’‘ could be the best contribution a new government could make to higher education policy. But a week into his term as Education Minister, Christopher Pyne has signalled that his tenure may be considerably more lively than that.
While being careful to raise issues rather than announce policies, he has signalled potential changes to Labor’s most important higher education reform, the demand-driven funding system for undergraduates in public universities.
For most of the past 40 years, the Commonwealth government has decided roughly how many university places there would be overall, and how many places each university would get. At the regulatory peak during the final Howard years, the government was allocating new student places to specific courses and campuses.
A 2008 policy review chaired by a former vice-chancellor, Denise Bradley, recommended sweeping away almost all these controls. It proposed that any Australian undergraduate student accepted by a higher education provider should be eligible for a Commonwealth tuition subsidy and a HECS-HELP loan for their student contribution. The number of places at each higher education provider would be determined by their supply decisions and student demand. The government would pay the bills, but not fix the numbers.
The then government largely accepted the Bradley recommendations, though for financial reasons it restricted the system to public universities. The Liberal opposition supported this new demand-driven system. But now Pyne is promising to review the system to see if it is having negative effects on quality.
These quality concerns surface whenever higher education is expanded. The first worry is that as universities become more open, the quality of students will decline. The second is that universities will let their own quality slip as they rush to enrol more students.
Labor’s last minister for higher education, Senator Kim Carr, was raising quality issues before the change of government. This view was also promoted by a vice-chancellor, who suggested that university applicants with an Australian Tertiary Admission Rank below 60 be refused Commonwealth support. This would mean that applicants in the lowest 60 per cent of academic achievement for their age group would not be eligible for a place at a public university.
In August, a Grattan Institute paper examined the empirical evidence for these quality concerns. It reported on degree completions after seven years by original ATAR levels. It found that students with ATARs between 30 and 60 had very similar completion rates, of about six out of 10. Certainly these completion rates are way below those of the most academically-able school leavers. More than 90 per cent of students with ATARs above 95 complete within seven years. But it means that any ATAR-based cap would deny a life-changing higher education to thousands of people a year.
The question we need to ask is not whether we should have a rule excluding lower ATAR students, but whether we can improve their prospects of completion.
If particular applicants are not suitable for higher education, individual universities are in a much better position than the government to decide this. ‘’Learning analytics’‘ software can evaluate data about students to assess drop-out risk. Universities that use this software can identify students who are in trouble and give them help. The same data can be used later to guide enrolment decisions.
The Bradley committee was well aware that quality of teaching objections would be made to their proposal to uncap the number of university places. They pre-empted this by recommending a new national regulator, what became the Tertiary Education Quality and Standards Agency.
Nobody could accuse TEQSA of being slack in searching for poor quality. After just 18 months of operation, the previous government commissioned a review of TEQSA due to widespread complaints of its excessive scrutiny of university affairs. Pyne has indicated he will act on these red-tape concerns. But the point is that we already have an institution in place to deal with concerns about university quality.
There is still room for universities to improve the student experience. Student satisfaction with teaching has been improving for 15 years, but not all academics are good teachers. A range of learning technologies, including analytics, can enhance higher education. But none of the things we could still do better would be more likely to happen if we watered down the demand-driven system. We have much to lose and nothing to gain from walking away from the reforms of the past few years.