Uncapping Australia’s undergraduate admissions has led to universities “taking ever larger numbers of ill-prepared students”, a vice-chancellor has claimed.
Under its previous government, Australia began lifting limits on undergraduate numbers at public universities after a major review of higher education said it was necessary to raise skills in the workforce. The number of places offered ballooned from 178,000 in 2009 to 212,000 in 2012 when the cap was fully removed, and the number of funded places rose by 22 per cent compared with 2008 levels.
Peter Coaldrake, vice-chancellor of the Queensland University of Technology, noted that significant expansion had occurred across the sector, including members of the research-intensive Group of Eight.
“Growth has not come just from pushing in students from the bottom of scholastic achievement,” he said, but also from making university “more the norm for those who have done…moderately well at school”.
Nevertheless, the Group of Eight has been particularly vocal in its concerns about quality. Warren Bebbington, vice-chancellor of group member the University of Adelaide (which grew by 33.5 per cent between 2007 and 2012), observed that first-year lectures at some institutions could include more than 1,000 students. Much of the expansion had come through international recruitment, he said: “It is not clear domestic participation has improved much at all.”
Professor Bebbington added: “Unmet demand disappeared in a flash as soon as the system was uncapped. What has happened since is, crudely, universities balancing their budgets by taking ever larger numbers of ill-prepared students.”
In the capped system, students had to score a mark of at least 54 in Australia’s national entrance test to get into university, he said, but some institutions “now advertise entrance scores as low as 30”. For this reason, he suspected, the review of the demand-driven system announced by Australia’s recently elected Coalition government would uncover much higher dropout rates.
The review was also prompted by concerns about the mushrooming cost of financing the income-contingent loans that, like the UK, Australia offers all undergraduates.
Gavin Moodie, principal policy adviser at RMIT University, does not expect the review to recommend the reimposition of the cap, since it is co-chaired by the education minister, David Kemp, who first proposed its abolition in 1999. “More likely is a proposal to adapt the system to make it the Coalition’s own, to reassure conservatives that it is not undermining quality,” he said.