Australian research elite renews attack on uncapped numbers

Group of Eight also warns of ‘policy drift’ and ‘risk to a major export industry’

August 20, 2016
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Australia’s system of unlimited student recruitment has come under sustained fire from research-intensive universities following the election, prompting others in the sector to accuse them of an “elitist” approach.

The debates over Australia’s demand-driven system – introduced in 2012 – will be of interest in England, which now also has a system of uncapped student recruitment backed by government-funded loans.

Last month’s Australian federal election saw Malcolm Turnbull, the prime minister, and the Liberal-National coalition returned to power, but still without a majority in the Senate – the stumbling block that stymied earlier plans to abolish the cap on tuition fees.

Prior to the election, Mr Turnbull’s government said that it was dropping those plans entirely, although an options paper on higher education floated the possibility of deregulating fees on “flagship courses”.

However, the government’s lack of a majority and post-election opposition to the flagship courses idea from key sector bodies including Universities Australia mean that proposals may have little support.

With no prospect of an extra funding injection and the government still considering cuts, the Group of Eight, which represents some of the country's most research-intensive universities, has put the spotlight on the costs of the demand-driven system.

Vicki Thomson, Group of Eight chief executive, said in a speech on 17 August that “if strong growth [in student numbers] continues there is a risk that the system will not be financially sustainable in the long term given the priority placed [by the government] on overall budget repair” of the public finances.

Ms Thomson told Times Higher Education: “The Go8 believes there is now the opportunity to enhance the demand-driven system by moving to a new model with a fresh purpose – one that better drives opportunity, student choice and diversity across all tertiary education; ensuring access and equity for all who are eligible to the programme most suited for them but not at the expense of quality.”

In a separate speech last month, she said: “Why are we all so reticent about stating the obvious – that university isn’t for everyone. It was never intended for everyone.”

But Renee Hindmarsh, executive director of the Australian Technology Network, wrote in The Australian last week that “the Group of Eight universities have turned their back on the principles that have made Australia great and are using budget repair as a fig leaf of modesty to account for an elitist and exclusionary approach to higher education policy”.

Ms Thomson also told THE: “The past five years especially have been years of policy drift, uncertainty and ad hoc funding cuts, so that the key challenges facing the sector have reached a level where they now pose a looming risk to the nation and a major export industry."

Hamish Coates, professor of higher education at the University of Melbourne, said: “There is a timid policy climate in Australia particularly with respect to higher education funding. Shifting any needles on this front will require stepping around and beyond decades-old positions and finding new ways of talking about the value higher education creates.”

Although fee deregulation has been dropped, plans for a 20 per cent cut in higher education funding originally outlined in 2014 remain in the government’s budget projections.

Universities Australia opposes the cuts in its submission to the consultation on the government’s options paper. The organisation recommends a lowering of the loan repayment threshold and an increase in repayments for higher earners as ways to safeguard financial sustainability.

And it remains a supporter of the demand-driven system, saying that enrolment growth has now “stabilised in line with population growth”.

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