A peek at Australia's Petri dish

January 23, 2014

What can the UK learn from the uncapped student numbers 'experiment' that is already in full swing Down Under?

Explosive" is the word used by one vice-chancellor to describe this week's figures showing 2013 enrolment rates by individual university.

We knew the shockwave was coming, but because of a time lag in the publication of the data, it has taken a while to reach us.

With the release of the figures by Ucas, we can finally see the impact of the ABB policy, the winners and the losers in the scrap for students, and who has been hit by a second consecutive year of below-target enrolment.

Because of the time lag and the pace of reform, however, things have already moved on, with the focus now firmly on the implications of abolishing the student numbers cap.

To shed some light on this, our cover feature looks to Australia - whose higher education sector has close parallels and links to that of the UK.

This is the case not only in terms of personnel moving between the two but also in terms of policy: it was Australia that pioneered the income contingent loan, later adopted here; Australia that shot itself in the foot over international students (a mistake being replicated here); and Australia that first developed the assessment of research impact.

So it is instructive to hear figures from across the Australian sector, from vice-chancellors to students, describing their own experiences of an uncapped, demand-led system - a system, it should be noted, that the current administration has put under review.

A common denominator in many of these commentaries is the question of quality: the influx of students (undergraduate numbers have increased by almost a quarter in the past four years) has clearly put a strain on the system.

One of several bones of contention there is how staffing has changed in response to the growth, with some warning that staff numbers have failed to keep pace with enrolments, and that this has fed the casualisation of the academic workforce.

This is very much a live issue in the UK, too, as universities seek to change the ratio of staff to non-staff costs on their balance sheets even before the numbers cap is removed.

In the UK thus far, debate about the policy shift has focused mainly on funding, and how the government hopes to pay for the 60,000 additional students expected each year (the answer - by selling off the student loan book - has satisfied no one).

Funding is also a major issue in Australia: just this week the elite Group of Eight universities called to be given freedom to opt out of government funding and instead to charge full fees on some courses.

In the meantime, David Willetts, the universities minister, is believed to be planning a visit to Australia. If true it's tempting to say that this seems a bit post hoc as a fact-finding mission, but that may say more about the way the student numbers decision was made (ie, on the hoof in the chancellor's Autumn Statement) than anything else.

But better late than never. The fact that the Australian higher education sector is several years ahead of us on this enables us to bypass the time lag between policy being implemented and the outcomes, and unintended consequences, becoming apparent.

In the minefield ahead, that might just save us a limb or two.

john.gill@tsleducation.com.

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