Quantity and quality

Removing the cap on student numbers does not imply a collapse in standards, argues Steven Schwartz - just look at Australia

September 6, 2012

A few years ago, I found myself on the losing side of a debate held in the Cambridge Union Society. My side defended the motion, “Britain needs more graduates”. Despite our brilliant performance, the house sided with our opponents, whose case against expansion was identical to the one made in 1960 by the late Kingsley Amis: “The delusion that there are thousands of young people about who are capable of benefiting from university training, but have somehow failed to find their way there, is a necessary component of the expansionist case. More will mean worse.”

Even then, Amis’ argument was unoriginal. In 1888, Cambridge Union debaters defeated the proposition “Women should be admitted to degrees” by arguing that Cantab qualifications would be devalued if women possessed them. Just in case the truth of this statement was not immediately self-evident, the debaters augmented their case with touching concern that rigorous university study would damage sensitive female constitutions.

This year, the Australian government’s new demand-led system removed enrolment quotas for all but a few university courses. In addition, Canberra has promised to create a funded place for every student that universities admit. Not surprisingly, enrolments have skyrocketed. Instead of praising this generous and socially progressive policy, modern Jeremiahs have resurrected Amis’ arguments to support warnings of impending doom: entry qualifications will fall; courses will be “dumbed down”; and Australian university degrees will be devalued. When the current crop of dim students complete their Mickey Mouse courses, critics argue, they will be unfit for proper graduate jobs and will wind up flipping burgers. Surely these students would be better off following careers that do not require higher education, such as plumbing, construction or politics?

As baseball legend Yogi Berra famously quipped, “it’s deja vu all over again”. The same dire predictions were made in Australia in the 1980s. The expansion of student numbers in the so-called “Dawkins universities” (converted from colleges of advanced education and polytechnics during the reign of Australian education minister John Dawkins) was also widely predicted to diminish the value of degrees. These newly created universities, full of dull students, second-rate staff and inadequate facilities, would surely destroy the reputation of Australian higher education.

I am sorry to let facts get in the way of a good scare campaign, but not a single one of these dire predictions has come to pass. All the available evidence suggests that the quality of Australian universities has improved rather than diminished over the past 30 years. They score well on international league tables, attract large numbers of overseas students and the proportion of students who pass has gone up. Despite a large increase in graduate numbers and the global financial crisis, unemployment among Australian graduates is lower today than it was in the 1980s. More importantly, the overwhelming majority of graduates are in jobs that actually require higher education. The graduate premium (the difference between what graduates and non-graduates earn) remains huge - around A$1.5 million (£984,000) over a lifetime.

What has changed is the demographic profile of those who earn degrees. In Amis’ time, only 5 per cent of the British population attended university. In Australia today, 40 per cent of school leavers will soon be enrolled in higher education. Rather than taking traditional three-year degrees, thousands are studying for foundation, diploma and certificate qualifications. Many are mature students who have returned to study, often part-time, to improve their lives and job prospects. Why would anyone want to deny them this opportunity?

Expanding student numbers has not, in any measurable way, diluted the value of Australian degrees. But there is a cloud on the horizon. The combination of student fees and government subsidies that universities receive barely covers the costs they incur. Some subjects are taught at a loss. A 2011 national review of university funding by Jane Lomax-Smith, former education minister, recommended increases in federal contributions for some courses, but so far no extra money has been forthcoming.

With little hope of government largesse, some university leaders are agitating for an increase in student fees. The current Labor administration will resist this for political reasons. It seems that universities, struggling to make ends meet and with no prospect of increased revenue, will have to reduce their costs.

So, Amis and his modern followers were wrong: more has not meant worse. However, if universities cannot find ways to economise without affecting their quality, they may soon find that less almost certainly does mean worse.

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