Access all area, but no loss of quality
Date posted: 31 May, 2012
Writing in The Australian, Swinburne University's Vice-Chancellor Linda Kristjanson highlights that education and innovation will drive Australia's economic success.
At the core of today's higher education policy is the understanding that our economic success will depend on our capacity as a nation to be innovative.
Future productivity demands a workforce that is characterised by higher skills and deeper expertise. We can't compete against developing economies that depend on unskilled or semi-skilled labour for their competitive edge.
So it's essential that we facilitate access to higher education opportunities for all those who are willing, and able, to take the first step on this journey.
The number of students estimated to be studying at undergraduate level this year is 512,000, up from 444,000 in 2009, when the decision was made to deregulate places.
This represents an annual growth of less than 5 per cent over three years. Solid growth, yes. Runaway growth, no.
A big part of the reason for this measured growth is that the federal government took the prudent approach of extending the contestable market to public universities, rather than throwing open the doors to anyone who wishes to hang up a shingle.
Because the number of market participants has been limited, there has not been a proliferation of poor-quality providers. At the same time, a quality regulator is clicking into gear this year to ensure that standards within our universities do not slip.
Australia is leading the world on this score and it is a model that I expect will be followed by others.
One fear about the new arrangements that has not been borne out is that removing caps would lead to large overruns of graduates in some disciplines, to the detriment of others.
Engineering is showing strong growth after years of stagnation. Enrolments in health sciences are up strongly, supplying a growing health workforce as our population ages. Even better, there has not been a sudden increase in the number of people who are studying to be lawyers.
Many will find their way to university through alternative pathways, having built up the foundations they need to succeed. Indeed, research shows that students who have successfully completed an advanced diploma qualification at TAFE level do as well or better than students who enter university directly from high school.
In recent months there has been some speculation about additional reforms that might be added to the current policy settings. The issue of student fee deregulation is now under broad discussion.
In my view, one should always be careful what one wishes for.
An unfortunate political reality is that governments often see public funding and student contributions as interchangeable.
Any increase in student contributions in years to come may well be accompanied by reductions in public expenditure, a measure on which Australia already performs particularly poorly by OECD comparisons.
And while the proposition that universities should at least to some extent be able to compete on price would seem on the surface to accord with commonsense, the history of fee deregulation is that most, if not all, institutions eventually move towards the top of what can permissibly be charged.
This calls into question the argument that fee flexibility is the final element of an open market approach to higher education.
There is, of course, much more work to be done.
The proportion of indigenous Australians who go on to higher education remains low. Men significantly lag behind women both in higher education aspiration and attainment -- a reversal of the position that existed even a quarter of a century ago.
Both areas will require new thinking to shift the status quo and ensure that we are optimising our full talent pool. We cannot sleep-walk into higher education policy environments that lead to educational cul-de-sacs where certain groups find the barricades to educational opportunities high and opaque.
Creating the conditions for greater mobility between pre-university foundation programs and vocational and higher education studies will be key instruments in tackling both of these long-term challenges.
Standards can be protected and assured at the same time that doorways are opened.
Right now, what the Australian higher education system needs most is certainty.
Our focus, and the focus of our governments, should be on a consolidation of the gains that have been made in recent years.