Confusion over Accord’s ‘demand-driven’ widening access plan

Key recommendation in Australian sector review report is substantially different from its historical namesake

二月 28, 2024
Dusty set of scales outside a closed shop in Siwa, Egypt, 2018
Source: iStock/John Wreford

Confusing signals around a key recommendation in Australia’s higher education blueprint will need to be untangled, according to experts.

The Universities Accord’s final report recommends a new funding system featuring “equitable access, participation and success” for people from under-represented groups, describing the approach as “demand-driven for equity”.

The inference is that uncapped access to higher education places, which was granted to indigenous people in regional areas and subsequently to their metropolitan cousins, would now be extended to all disadvantaged people.

Education minister Jason Clare described the proposal as “a demand-driven system focusing first on equity students”.

“We did that for indigenous students last year. The recommendation here is to expand that to students from poor backgrounds and the regions and expand that over time to more students,” he said.

The report urges the government to ensure that “all students from under-represented backgrounds” are eligible for funded places at public universities “as soon as possible” by redirecting unused funding from the government’s commitment to fund 20,000 additional places in 2023 and 2024.

It does not propose a mechanism for guaranteeing places to equity students after this surplus funding is exhausted.

Australian National University analyst Andrew Norton pointed out that the surplus funding had already been allocated to universities, on condition that they develop institutional equity plans. “Holding the money over would be more sensible than the equity plan idea, but obviously it is still a capped amount,” he said.

The report also describes the new approach as “planned allocation of places to universities”. This is different from the rationale of the demand-driven system between 2012 and 2017, when student choice drove the allocation of university places.

Western Sydney University vice-chancellor Barney Glover said the last decade’s demand-driven system had significantly increased student numbers, including those from historically under-represented backgrounds, while responding effectively to “most” skill shortages and contributing to gross domestic product.

But Professor Glover, a member of the Universities Accord panel, said the model had also attracted criticism for fuelling “unfettered growth” in higher education and ushering underprepared students into universities. Critics also questioned whether the system was “truly meeting labour market needs”.

He told the Universities Australia (UA) conference in Canberra that the panel had proposed “a managed demand-driven system for the future – a more planned and managed system to guide us over the next 25 years”.

Under such an approach, students’ demand could drive what they studied but not necessarily where. UA chair David Lloyd described it as “a national market for placements”, with “systemic control” to prevent the unconstrained growth of the last decade.

The system would be managed by the proposed tertiary education commission, through university compacts, to ensure that institutions only accommodated genuine demand from people capable of meeting entry requirements.

Professor Norton said the use of the term “demand-driven” implied that the higher education system as a whole would have the capacity to meet demand.

This could be a lofty ambition, with around 40 per cent of Australian citizens meeting at least one equity definition. “Making such a large group demand-driven but the rest capped would be very messy and not consistent with the idea that university growth should be within a regulated range for each university,” he said.

Professor Lloyd said the proposals would give rise to “what do you mean?” conversations.

“There is talk about it being a needs-based system. Technically, if you’re going to meet need, you have to meet demand.”



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