Australia’s university policy paralysis

By Gavin Moodie

Australian university-type education has periods of relatively stability and increasing fears of stagnation interrupted about every two decades by ambitious and radical change.

The last occasion of radical transformation recognized as such is the ‘Dawkins revolution’ of 1987-89 which collapsed the previous polytechnic sector and the university sector into a ‘unified national system’, introduced universal income contingent loans for tuition fees, commercialized international education and shifted much research funding from institutions’ general operating grants to grants allocated competitively to institutions and researchers.

It is now becoming apparent that a second transformation was launched in 2009 with the policy statement Transforming Australia’s higher education system adopted on the recommendation of the review of Australian higher education chaired by Denise Bradley. The Bradley review launched many important changes, but is currently known best for recommending the introduction of what is known as the ‘demand driven system’ of university funding.

Screen Shot 2016-05-05 at 10.36.26 AM.pngThe demand driven system funds public universities for as many students they choose to enroll in baccalaureates. The only important restriction is medicine, where seats, which are called ‘places’ in Australia, are regulated closely by the Australian Government. In all other important fields Australian public universities can enroll as many students in whatever baccalaureates they wish.

This is having two important effects, as one may expect. Student numbers are changing markedly between institutions, undermining the viability of some universities in outer metropolitan areas and others in modest population centres. Student numbers are also changing markedly between programs and fields of study, with social sciences, health and sciences increasing their shares of enrolments and information technology, education and business losing shares, though still growing.

Both the Dawkins revolution and the demand driven system are criticized heavily by left wing commentators for allocating resources by the market – they mean competitively – rather than by a democratic process. They are also criticized extensively by right wing commentators for advancing ‘quantity’ over ‘quality’, shifting decisions from experts to students and for not advancing sufficiently the interests of elite universities.

In its 2014 budget the Conservative federal government which had been elected in September 2013 announced that universities would be able to charge for baccalaureates whatever tuition fee they wanted, backed by income contingent loans guaranteed by the government. This broke several explicit election promises, was bad policy as I argued and ‘toxic’ politics. The proposal was rejected by the Senate (*which is elected in Australia*).

Nonetheless, the Conservatives persisted with its policy until the 2016 budget, delivered unusually a week early on May 3 (Australian federal budgets are almost always delivered at 7:30 pm on the 2nd Tuesday in May).  However, the Government moved the budget early because it wants to move the federal election 3 months early to July 2 this year. It has therefore delivered a very cautious budget and left itself little time to implement anything beyond the basics.

This policy paralysis is problematic only if one finds the status quo intolerable. I think Australian university education would benefit from what is the mostly likely outcome: a return to 2 decades of relatively stable policy with incremental changes to fix obvious but neither urgent nor particularly serious problems. This is in contrast to college-type education, whose lurching deterioration since 1997 badly needs fixing, as the Government acknowledges.

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