Reforms needed for Australian universities -- but what reforms?

There seems to be an underlying goal in the article below to get more young people into universities.    But it coud be argued that FEWER students should go to universities. There is much more demand for tradesmen than there is for (say) social science graduates.  And the tradesmen often end up paid more.

Additionally, the emphasis on getting students from poorer backgrouds  into university may well be a waste in many cases.  Such students will often drop out, having achieved nothing. 

 Admission should be based solely on ability criteria, from senior exam results to IQ scores.  The "equity" goals can be achieved by giving financial support to able students from poor backgrounds.  But the demonstrated ability must be there or there is no point.

What I am suggesting is not blue sky.  It is exactly what the old Commonwealth Scholarship Scheme introduced by Bob Menzies in 1951 did. I benefited from it in the '60s. I was a smart kid from a poor background and sailed through my tertiary studies with that assistance.  Of the seven justices of the High Court of Australia, none was the child of a university graduate. All but one were Commonwealth scholars. 

Universities are engines of the economy, producing the research and workforce that help grow GDP. But the idea of who universities are for needs to change, says federal Education Minister Jason Clare. More than half of all jobs in Australia will need higher education qualifications by 2050, compared with 36 per cent today, according to analysis released this week in the interim report of the landmark accord review of universities. That means about twice as many people will need to go to university – including students from low socioeconomic backgrounds and the regions who typically haven’t considered tertiary education as an option.

Yet the higher education sector itself is in crisis, propped up by international student fees after decades of government funding cuts, with a heavily casualised workforce and, increasingly, experts say, an excessively corporatised executive. Some warn Australian universities have lost sight of students in their scramble to stay competitive with elite institutions around the world.

To succeed, they’ve had to get bigger. The rise of the homogenous mega-university means institutions are becoming more like “supermarkets for credentials” at the cost of specialisation, according to RMIT University’s principal adviser in institutional research, Angel Calderon.

The days of university as a transformational experience are fading, says Xavier Dupe of the National Student Union. “And it started before COVID. Universities are pushing students through a degree factory and increasingly gearing study around the priorities of big business.”

What’s needed, everyone agrees, is a complete overhaul.

Big ‘spiky’ change

The accord’s interim report lays out five priority moves to jumpstart reforms: all Indigenous students will be guaranteed a Commonwealth-supported university place when they are accepted for study; 34 new study hubs will be established in outer suburbs and regional areas; and university governing boards will be overhauled to install more people with higher education experience. A key part of the former Coalition government’s controversial Job Ready Graduates Package – which was lashed by the accord panel as disadvantaging poorer students – will be dismantled, meaning students who fail more than 50 per cent of subjects will no longer lose their Commonwealth place. And government funding agreements, which had only been guaranteed until the end of this year, will be extended into 2025.

But radical reform calls for radical ideas, says Clare, and the accord panel has also laid out a raft of “big spiky” ones that could shape the sector’s next steps ahead of its final report in December. “That’s why there’s an echidna on the front cover,” Clare quipped as the report was handed down.

The review comes at a time when NSW and Victorian universities are almost universally in deficit. The exception is the University of Sydney, which has reported an operating surplus of $1.3 billion over the past two years.

The next six months, says higher education expert Andrew Norton, is where the debate could get divisive. Some ideas flagged are especially spiky, including a proposed levy on the almost $10 billion universities make annually from international student fees, that could be used to cover gaps elsewhere such as research funding and student housing. Group of Eight universities that earn the most from international students have already slammed the idea as a tax on high-achieving institutions, even as many regional institutions voice interest.

University of Melbourne vice-chancellor Professor Duncan Maskell questions how such a levy could be fairly applied. “It costs us a lot of money to attract international students, we then use a big chunk of their fees on teaching them or building infrastructure for them,” he says. “By the time you factor all that in, there wouldn’t be much left to tax.”

Still, La Trobe University vice-chancellor Professor John Dewar says the levy idea has “a lot of merit”. The sheer scale of the changes needed demands bold moves, he says, welcoming the accord panel’s willingness to “pressure test and wargame” such ideas now to avoid unintended consequences later. For example, “a levy could lead to the cost being passed onto the students and that’d be a shame”, he says. “It already costs a lot to come here and study.”

Norton says the levy could reinforce the perception of international students as cash cows and potentially drive away a key source of revenue for the sector. What’s clear though is that there is a resource divide between many universities and, according to the accord, universities are incentivised to maximise their international student cohort, blowing out class sizes. “This can be detrimental to the student experience,” the report says.

Rich university, poor university

Reforms down the years have tried to close the equity gap and failed. Now, the accord panel says, reaching parity requires 60 per cent more students from low socio-economic backgrounds going to university, 53 per cent more from regional areas and about 11 per cent more First Nations students.

If we’re going to get there, Dewar says, “we need to pull every lever. We haven’t really had a plan for higher education in this country. We need targets.”

Clare, who is also plotting big reforms in early education and schools, says students are being failed before they reach university. Those from poorer backgrounds are three times more likely to fall behind in school and only 15 per cent go on to get degrees. “Six years ago, 83 per cent of students in public schools finished year 12,” he told the Press Club this week. “Last year it was 76 per cent. And all of this is happening at a time when finishing school is so much more important than it was in my mum and dad’s day, or mine ... If you’re a young Indigenous bloke today, you’re more likely to go to jail than university.”

These grim figures are why Norton still sees reaching equal university participation as a “pipedream” until school results and year 12 completion rates go up. In NSW, one in three public school students are now dropping out of school. “We should be realistic about what’s achievable,” says Norton.

Equity targets have been missed before, concedes Dewar, but he senses a real momentum in the sector this time, something he hopes is matched by more serious funding and policy. An independent tertiary commission to guide the reform, another spiky idea flagged by the accord, may well be needed given the amount of taxpayer money involved. “They need to hold universities accountable for targets,” says Dewar. “They need to assure the taxpayer that the results are worth it. In a busy world, no matter how much appetite the sector might have to do something, and it does have the appetite, if you’re not actually going to have your feet held to the fire over it, then it may slip.”

A second national university, this time focusing on the regions and based on the University of California model, is another idea flagged worth a discussion, Dewar says. “Under the UC model, their campuses all have a degree of autonomy, and are big unis in their own right, but they benefit from some aggregation of function that are expensive for each university to run separately.” Others question whether a federated model is needed.

Clare has said Australia would likely need more universities and new kinds of institutions, including more specialised models, to cater to the coming demand.


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