This Policy Will Need Special Consideration To Pass, Kevin


Another year, another Universities Australia conference. The second annual conference of the peak body of Australian universities took place in Canberra earlier this month. It brought together 39 vice-chancellors, a plethora of education bureaucrats, and just a handful of student representatives.

The conference made the news primarily because of Deputy Prime Minister Gillard’s announcement of a MyUniversity website, which will operate along the same lines as the MySchool site. The media scrutiny of this initiative diverted attention away from the far more important structural changes ahead for the Australian higher education sector.

The first major change is, of course, deregulation.

A central feature of the Rudd Government’s higher education "revolution" is a set of participation and equity targets: 40 per cent of all young people aged 25-34 to have a bachelors’ degree by 2025, and in the same time period, Low Socio-Economic Status (SES) students to account for 20 per cent of all students. These are admirable targets, and they conform with Labor’s ideological goals of social inclusion and broad upward social mobility.

However, as far as policy is concerned, there are many problems.

Firstly, how will Low SES students be defined? Previously, the very rough "postcode" rule — defining low SES people by where they lived — was used. The Bradley Review of Higher Education, released in December 2008, proposed a new measure, but the government has remained tight-lipped as to exactly what these new metrics might look like. Without knowing who will comprise this 20 per cent of their future student intake, the ability of universities across Australia to plan has been curtailed.

This would not be a big problem — except that Rudd and Gillard have forged ahead with a funding shakeup. Until this year, the Commonwealth Grants Scheme gave universities funding according to how many students they enrolled. This meant that places were regulated and capped — and the government could tightly control exactly how much money it gave out to each institution.

This year caps on enrolment have been abolished. At the conference it was revealed that universities are over-enrolled for 2010 by an average of 7.5 per cent, with UNSW over-enrolled by a whopping 15 per cent.

The new funding model in line to replace the Commonwealth Grants Scheme is something called "mission-based compacts". Each university is expected to negotiate with the government about its distinctive "mission", and will be given performance targets within that mission tied to funding. Interim compacts have been settled for some Australian universities, with the scheme to be fully rolled out next year. The details of interim compacts are not on the public record.

Universities Australia fell into line with Gillard in naming this form of funding "student-centred" — but this descriptor is not particularly apt.

In the final session of the conference, Professor Derek McCormack, V-C of the Auckland University of Technology, discussed New Zealand’s experiment with this funding model. On the plus side, Maori participation rates shot up to 15 per cent of total enrolments — but the scheme also resulted in high student debt and low university enrolments across the board.

It’s also notable that under the NZ system, 42 per cent of government higher education funding went straight into the student’s pocket as living allowances or bursaries. Australia is certainly not going down this path.

Although the Rudd Government promised to increase income support for students by 2012, there were no signs at the conference of an overall increase in funding for the higher education sector. Despite deregulating places and shifting to a compacts-based funding model, the Government is not talking about tying funding to the real costs of delivering an education. One domestic undergraduate student in a classroom will continue to bring in less money than it costs to teach that student. It’s a lot of complicated administrative noise — with few real gains.

The one piece of funding that has been announced is a Higher Education Performance Fund, the replacement for the Howard-era Learning and Teaching Performance Fund. The Government has indicated that this fund will contain up to $141 million, to be distributed as a reward to universities who can show exceptional teaching. At just under $4 million per university, and with funding shortfalls reaching into the billions of dollars, this is hardly sufficient to address the crisis in higher education where it’s being felt — in classrooms.

As Glenn Withers, CEO of Universities Australia, explained in his paper on higher education in the Australian budget, Rudd’s education revolution certainly doesn’t involve a real increase in university funding. According to his figures, with education funding at just 0.7 per cent of GDP, we are still behind the vast majority of OECD countries.

By contrast, the Rudd Government has pledged to increase defence budgets three times as much as any possible education increase for at least the next three budgets. Indeed, the Defence Department seem to be the only one to see the value of properly funding education — recent reports indicate that the department had enough money to splurge on Harvard courses.

Beyond the quagmire of funding, the conference also addressed a pair of linked initiatives that will have more far-reaching consequences than the MyUniversity website: the new Australian Qualifications Framework (AQF) and the Tertiary Education Standards and Quality Agency (TEQSA). These acronyms will signal the demise of the self-accredited university in Australia.

From 2012, TEQSA will administer a set of minimum standards for Australian universities. Universities who cannot meet these standards will be brought back into line by TEQSA, probably through funding levers specified in that university’s mission-based compact.

What we do know about the metrics used by TEQSA is that Universities Australia will be lobbying for outcomes-based academic attributes, such as student satisfaction and the much-talked-of, but as yet ill-defined graduate attributes, to be used to measure the relative performance of universities. It’s very likely that these measures will be published on the MyUniversity website to increase transparency.

But the issues students are concerned about — the sizes of their classes, availability of library, computing, and laboratory facilities, receiving adequate feedback on their assessments, access to supervisors and academic staff, sufficient administrative support — are largely about processes within the higher education system, not outcomes.

There is a real danger that this process will result in the Government telling universities that they need to achieve targets without giving them the means to achieve them; a stance that will likely reduce the quality of learning and teaching throughout the sector since there are few incentives to improve pedagogy.

The Government is also reforming the framework for degree offerings, the Australian Qualifications Framework (AQF). One of the many anticipated changes is the inclusion or exclusion of Honours degrees. This may mean that all research training will be classified as postgraduate-level study, and further push Australian universities towards the Bologna Model of degree structures. If we do shift to a Bologna Model, that can only mean one thing — high-cost postgraduate coursework degrees designed to fund teaching in undergraduate streams.

On reflection, it seems that there were two stories being told at Universities Australia.

There was the populist, social-uplift narrative of inclusion and so-called student-centred funding being pushed by Gillard. And then there was the anxious attention to quality and standards and the effects these will have on university offerings. All of this was tinged with desperation as it became clear that money was going to be hard to come by for many years to come.

The Government can move money from one tiny pot to another, put new restrictions in place and remove old ones, deregulate, reregulate, posture, orate and self-congratulate, but without a substantial injection of cash, the Australian higher education sector will continue to struggle.

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