Australian minister hints at budget boost for sector

Recommendation to extend demand-driven route likely to get green light

May 8, 2014

Source: PA Photos

Ambitious: Christopher Pyne wants the education system to be the world’s best

Australia’s education minister, Christopher Pyne, has hinted that next week’s federal budget could see the country’s government commit extra funding to an expansion of its demand-driven higher education system.

In 2012 Australia removed caps on the number of state-subsidised undergraduates that universities were able to recruit. A review commissioned by the country’s new coalition government, which reported in April, concluded that the policy had largely been a success but that a high dropout rate among students with lower high school grades needed to be addressed by expanding the demand-driven system to include sub-degree pathways programmes. It also recommended that “innovation, quality and efficiency” be encouraged by expanding the system to include private and non-university providers of higher education.

Speaking at a Policy Exchange event in London on 28 April, Mr Pyne declined to pre-empt the government’s response to the recommendations, which will coincide with the budget on 13 May. But he said the idea of expanding the demand-driven system to sub-degree programmes and non-university providers had “much to recommend” it.

He quoted approvingly the suggestion by University of Adelaide vice-chancellor Warren Bebbington, published online by Times Higher Education on 17 April, that Australia seek to emulate the US’ greater variety of higher education providers.

Much of the debate in Australia has focused on how an expansion of the demand-driven system might be funded. The review suggested introducing a fee of 10 per cent on all student loans, or deregulating the fees universities are permitted to charge. Mr Pyne declined to comment on those suggestions but said the “speculation” was that adopting the review’s recommendations would “cost the government money”.

“It certainly wouldn’t be a saving. If that was to occur it would be another demonstration of the Coalition’s very genuine commitment not [only] to competition and excellence but also to the higher education system.

“We don’t see education as an area where savings should be found. Through competition and autonomy we will grow our international export market and produce the best education system in the world and allow some of our great universities to become the very best in the world,” he said. Mr Pyne said his was a “deregulatory government” that would “take steps to set higher education providers free, provide them with more autonomy, and challenge them to map out their futures according to their strengths”.

Part of this involved “stripping away burdensome regulation and excessive reporting requirements”. This was why he had issued a ministerial direction to the country’s Tertiary Education Quality and Standards Agency to become “more of a deregulator rather than a heavy-handed regulator”. But he insisted that the body would continue to vet institutions and courses, and that no private providers or courses would be accredited to a lower standard than universities.

“While expanding opportunity, quality must be upheld,” he said.

He also said that he was discussing with UK ministers the possibility of establishing a formal forum to exchange policy ideas between the two countries. Last month Nick Hillman, director of the Higher Education Policy Institute, called for UK policymakers to pay more attention to Australia’s system, which bears many similarities to that of the UK.

In his Autumn Statement last December, UK chancellor George Osborne announced that England would also abolish undergraduate number caps from 2015-16.

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