We’re on the higher education merry-go-round: a new government, new minister, new priorities, reviews, audits, thinly veiled threats to research funding, questions over teaching quality, concerns over falling standards – all this despite the Prime Minister’s pre-election promise of benign neglect or, as he puts it, "masterly inactivity".
If what has been on show over the past two weeks is inactivity, then the university sector would be well advised to hang onto to their hats.
The strongest reaction thus far to the Government’s pronouncements has come from senior academics and higher education commentators who have expressed great concern over any proposed reintroduction of enrolment caps which were removed by the Gillard government in 2012. Since then we have seen a huge spike in student enrolments along with bulging class sizes, and increasing pressure on support staff and academics.
None of this seems to worry our higher education pundits, including Andrew Norton from the Grattan Institute who, in an article published in last week’s Sydney Morning Herald, argued, with some justification, that the Australian Tertiary Admission Rank (ATAR) is a poor predictor of degree completion and that the introduction of ATAR-related caps would "deny a life-changing education to thousands of people a year".
For Norton, "the question we need to ask is not whether we should have a rule excluding lower ATAR students, but whether we can improve their levels of completion."
Norton’s conclusions come on top of numerous other observations by vice chancellors, senior academics and many in the business community who regard ATARs as nothing more than an indicator of supply and demand.
One of the most vociferous advocates of this view is the feisty vice chancellor of the Australian Catholic University, Professor Greg Craven, who argues that "… an ATAR is not an assessment of intellectual ability written by God in gold, it’s simply a correlation between demand and supply, so if you bring on more places the ATAR scores will go down."
For Melbourne University’s pro-vice chancellor and senior academic at the University of Melbourne’s Centre for the Study of Higher Education, Professor Richard James, ATARs are nothing more than the "de facto price" for entry into university.
Leaving aside the reductivist nature of these comments – which, in effect, brush aside the fact that for many students, ATARs are certainly more than simple economic currency – and the tendency to privilege market logic above all else, Craven, Norton and others conveniently ignore some important considerations when it comes to the enormous challenges faced by universities in seeking to respond to increased student enrolments.
First, completion rates can only be understood in the context of the altered landscape of higher education. At best, such rates are crude empirical measures that tell us little about the lengths to which many learning support staff and academics go to make sure that students get through their studies. Norton’s failure to acknowledge the increased amount of remedial education undertaken by academics and learning support staff is reflective of a more general disregard for those at the delivery end of higher education.
Second, in a cut-throat market where student retention can mean the difference between institutional stagnation and growth, academics face enormous pressures – direct and otherwise – to make sure that everything is done to keep students on the books.
With attrition rates at some less renowned universities hovering around the 30 percent mark it is hardly surprising that various institutional strategies have been adopted to try and retain students, especially when there is such intense competition from other, more prestigious institutions. Pressure to pass students – despite institutional denials – and the provision of (often under-resourced) intensive learning support are now a key part of university retention practices.
Had Norton asked academics what they think about dealing with the new massified student population he may well have given consideration to the rise of "soft assessment" and other pedagogical reversals that contribute to what many see as the "dumbing down" of higher education.
Third, given such developments it seems reasonable to ask: what on earth does a completion rate actually tell us other than that someone has managed to get through a course? Perhaps the more pertinent data relate to the actual quality of education experienced by today’s undergraduates, the grades obtained by low ATAR students, and their routes into further study and employment.
Fourth, ATARs account for only a third or more of all entry pathways to university. Most universities now offer a staggering array of bonus points, special entry schemes, articulation arrangements, preparatory courses, early entry initiatives and other pathways that make access to higher education more "flexible" than ever. In some cases universities have special entry schemes for those aged under and over 21 years (!), and others who have experienced "disrupted schooling", "home responsibilities", "difficult circumstances", "financial disadvantage", or who are refugees, mature-aged or come from rural, regional and non-English speaking backgrounds.
Few would quarrel with the sector’s attempt to broaden opportunities for those who want to enter university, and no-one, surely, would want to return to the patriarchal and class elitism of the past. Equally though, where entry gateways are so wide, and in the context of acute market competition where the priority is often to enrol students at any cost, we have to ask about the consequences of such practices on the quality of higher education and on the sorts of graduates we are producing.
Analysis of completion rates can only take us so far in this regard. Since the Dawkins reforms in the late eighties, universities have become like ravenous super trawlers gobbling up schools of enrolees in their path. Perhaps it is time to rethink our higher education pathways and whether there could be more nuanced access entry points via revamped TAFEs, polytechnics, and assorted specialist colleges (some of which are already among the 150 higher education private providers).
Why cram such a differentiated population into university? Why have so many degrees? Why a degree program for every conceivable human activity? What for the matter are "degrees" in today’s tertiary system and what is or should be their value to the community?
What we urgently require is a public debate on the role of universities in the 21st century. We might start with the following questions: What have universities become? Should they be at the mercy of market forces and why should they be so closely tethered to the needs of the economy? When was the latter decided by the public? Who is really running the show?
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