Two years after it first made education reform a core priority in its election campaign, Labor has at last announced its vision for the tertiary sector: a major expansion of the university system. The Government plans to increase student participation, raising the number of people aged between 25 and 34 with bachelor-level qualifications from 32 per cent to 40 per cent, and the percentage of undergraduate students who come from lower socioeconomic backgrounds from 16 per cent to 20 per cent.
Speaking at a higher education conference this week, Julia Gillard tied the issue of equity in student demographics to national productivity. "Equity matters to national productivity," she said. "It has always done so, but the global financial crisis brings a new urgency to the debate." Once the nation rides out the current crisis, Gillard argued, recovery will depend on the assumption that "everyone is able to fill the increasing opportunities presented by an expanding economy".
When Labor first announced its impending education "revolution", the economic climate was markedly different to the present dark period. Said revolution was originally meant to prop up the ailing tertiary sector (which had endured a progressive decline in federal funding), but Gillard is now attempting to reframe it as part of the Government’s response to the global financial crisis. The worsening economic situation has made it necessary for Labor to refine the argument for its education reforms as a solid investment, not only in the country’s future prosperity, but in its recovery.
How will the Government achieve its ambitious student participation target? It plans to do so by giving universities greater freedom to control student numbers. At present the Government restricts student numbers by placing a cap on the number of commonwealth-supported places offered at university. This cap will be phased out in 2012, and replaced by a scheme whereby universities will receive federal funding in proportion to their student numbers.
It’s a win-win situation for universities. Under the new scheme, university heads will have a virtual carte blanche to determine how many students, and what kinds of students, they wish to enrol. Moreover, the new scheme means that university revenue-raising will no longer be hampered by federal caps on student numbers, leaving tertiary institutions free to raise profits through increasing intake numbers. Unsurprisingly, the Group of 8 — the coalition of the nation’s prestige universities — has welcomed the Government’s planned overhaul of the tertiary sector.
But reform on this scale inevitably comes with a hefty price tag. Gillard has so far kept quiet on how much it will cost and where that money will come from — saying that details will be announced at budget time in May. A basic indicator of the cost of reform can be gleaned, however, from the Bradley Review, the report that Labor commissioned to guide its tertiary sector reforms shortly after it won office. Submitted in December 2008, the Review is the clear foundation for the reforming vision articulated by Gillard during the past fortnight. Its recommendations have been costed at $7 billion.
Labor will have a hard time selling an undertaking of this magnitude in the current economic situation. Even if it could find a way to budget for the Bradley Review’s central recommendations, it would be wary of opening another front for the Opposition to attack its credentials as a fiscally responsible operator.
However, we can expect Labor to shave off expenses by either ignoring or blunting the Bradley Review’s recommendation for extensive and immediate reform of the student income support scheme. The review notes that Youth Allowance hasn’t been updated since the early 1990s. This is a chronic source of student protest, yet so far Gillard has said nothing about whether she intends to address this glaring problem for what will be a growing base of students.
Indeed, it remains unclear as to what impact an increase in student numbers will have on the overall student experience. Bolstering national productivity is one thing; enabling this expanded base of future workers to live while studying is another. Gillard wants future graduates to play a role when the nation recovers from the crisis. But the crisis has serious consequences for university students, many of whom are already struggling to make ends meet. As the review points out, student welfare has become increasingly inadequate in the face of modern tuition, travel, food and rent costs.
There are also concerns about how the expansion of student numbers will affect the quality of education offered by universities. "Student choice out, inequality in" is the emphatic conclusion of David Barrow, President of the National Union of Students. "This is the wrong direction for higher education." NUS argues that deregulation of enrolments will only exacerbate overcrowding problems, thereby placing greater strain on resources, and hindering the possibility for meaningful student interaction with academics.
No doubt anticipating these concerns, Gillard has announced plans to establish a new national agency that will monitor university teaching and administration standards. Until more details are given, however, the proposal raises several questions. What indicators will the new agency rely on to determine the quality of a teaching and learning experience? How will the agency enforce its rulings? In a way, the Government’s proposed reforms will revolve around the agency’s structure and powers of governance. The success of the education revolution largely falls to the future heads of this agency.
It is difficult to see how an independent regulatory body can stop universities, newly freed by the deregulation of enrolments, to increase the number of places offered in profitable, prestige degrees such as law and medicine, to the detriment of less popular courses. How will the agency ensure that universities continue to offer a rich and diverse array of courses instead of just focusing on the revenue-raising ones?
In the meantime, there must also be concern that, by tying federal funding to student intake, the Government’s reforms will inadvertently benefit major metropolitan universities — which have the greatest pulling power to attract larger numbers and therefore will be in line for the bulk of federal funding — to the detriment of smaller regional institutions. It will be a terrible irony if the revolution intended to make the university system more equitable turns out to favour wealthy institutions at the expense of smaller, poorer ones.
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