While most of their recommendations were well-received across the higher education sector, one – extending the demand driven system and the public funding that goes with it, to all higher education providers – including for-profit private providers, has attracted lively debate.
Many in the university sector were surprised at the responses to the UA suggestion that before signing up to this recommendation, further questioning and analysis of the policy implications is required.
The proposal to extend Government funding to for profit providers, along with other suggestions on student fee deregulation, less public investment in universities, and a review of the definition of what it means to be a university, potentially represents a fully-fledged re-engineering of Australia’s higher education system.
Surely then, it is not unreasonable for a deep and thorough analysis of the implications and possible intended, unintended and/or undesirable consequences. We can only mitigate risks if we first identify them.
The comments recently directed at UA seem not to seek to engage the UA position but to conveniently misrepresent it as trenchant opposition.
Let’s underscore the point, UA is not opposed to further competition in the higher education sector.
Some seem to have analysed the impact of extending the demand driven system combined with fee deregulation and concluded comfort. But others have not, possibly because it was not immediately obvious from the terms of reference that the report would so definitively address this issue.
But surely there can be no argument that proposals of this potential magnitude do raise questions including around reputation, quality assurance, public expenditure priorities, fee structure, and meeting labour market needs. To simply sweep all these away, unaddressed, would not only be a dereliction of our duty to assist the policy making process but would ignore the opportunity to guarantee the integrity and durability of the system that finally emerges.
The need for careful consideration attaches to the Report’s other recommendations as well.
For example, Kemp and Norton recommend that caps on Commonwealth supported places should be removed from postgraduate courses with a combination of clear community benefit and modest financial rewards, with all other postgraduate courses becoming full fee paying. The suggestion is the Department would draw up lists of what’s in and what’s out on these bases, with room to negotiate cases on the margins.
Early consideration of these two grounds for the future application of CSPs to postgraduate courses raises more questions. How will the Department judge “clear community benefit”? Skills shortages, as one dimension, may be felt at the national level, but in a nation as vast as Australia such shortages are often acutely expressed at the state or local level. And what does “modest financial rewards” mean?
Some commentators have identified business and law courses as examples of those where the private return to education is very high. That may be true in some labour markets, particularly large metropolitan labour markets, but it is not true for all. It may not be true for graduates in metropolitan areas who work in SMEs or the not for profit sector or who are self-employed.
And just how broad are the legacy issues that need to be taken into account? Once again, and for the avoidance of doubt, these comments are not objections, but instead sample just some of the issues that attend implementation of another of the report’s recommendations.
Likewise, comments made about fee deregulation since the release of the report. UA has commissioned work on this important issue. It is time to have a good, hard look at fees, to consider options and their implications. The work hasn’t been done on it. Let’s do it, let’s have an evidence-based debate to inform an approach – keeping in mind the current fiscal circumstance, contemporary costs of quality higher education and that Australian students already make a substantial contribution to their higher education while Government contributes less than the vast majority of OECD countries to the higher education of citizens.
It is important that in reviewing an already highly successful, internationally competitive higher education sector we come up with an improved, updated system designed to meet the needs of a contemporary economy and society.
A vigorous debate over future directions is an important part of the process and should be encouraged. Universities have differences over some of the positions raised in the report and that is to be expected. The sector has been able to raise such different emphases without an unedifying tit for tat, knock ‘em down debate, a sign of a mature and meaningful discussion. It is important that this continues to be the case.
Let’s make sure the renovation burnishes the higher education sector’s best features and bolsters the integrity of the whole in the best interests of the nation.
Belinda Robinson, Chief Executive, Universities Australia.
Published in The Australian on 23 April 2014