Critics have accused Australia’s new Coalition government of reneging on pre-election promises to preserve the country’s demand-driven university admissions system.
Christopher Pyne, Australia’s education minister, said in his first public comments since the Liberal-led Coalition defeated Labor last month that his top priorities for higher education would include a review of the demand-driven undergraduate system, as well as “repairing” international student recruitment and cutting red tape.
Under Labor, Australia began to abolish quotas on domestic undergraduate places in 2010. Since then, an extra 190,000 students have attended the country’s universities.
Before the election, the Coalition said it had “no plans” to reimpose a numbers cap on admissions. But Mr Pyne – who will also oversee Australian research after it was moved from the Department of Industry to the Department of Education last week – said he needed to “get good advice” about whether Australian higher education had reached “saturation point” and whether its reputation for quality was under threat.
Some critics have complained that universities have responded to the demand-driven system by recruiting students with lower high school grades than were previously accepted.
Former Labor higher education minister Kim Carr cited similar concerns when he announced a review of the system when he returned to office earlier this year.
But acting Labor leader Chris Bowen said Mr Pyne’s remarks to Australian media indicated that the government aimed to “set up an excuse to cut university funding”.
Jeannie Rea, president of the National Tertiary Education Union, said the minister’s comments confirmed her prediction that a Coalition government “would take an axe” to funding and scrap widening participation targets.
Mr Pyne insisted that a policy review was merely what “any responsible incoming government” would do, and pledged to consult the sector over any changes.
Belinda Robinson, chief executive of Universities Australia, said it was “healthy” to review existing policies, but added that it would be premature to draw conclusions about the demand-driven system’s effects on quality before anyone had graduated from it.
Mr Pyne also said he would not continue Labor’s drive for 40 per cent of 25- to 34-year-olds to have degrees by 2025 and for 20 per cent of undergraduates to come from poor backgrounds by 2020.
“My aspiration is to get as many people doing university education as want to do it and can do it effectively to maintain quality,” he said.
But he ruled out imposing minimum entry standards for undergraduates, a policy previously proposed by Australia’s elite Group of Eight universities.
On international student recruitment, which has fallen by around 20 per cent in recent years, Mr Pyne said he would look at streamlining the visa process and increasing post-study work rights.
He also pledged to lighten the load imposed on universities by the country’s fledgling Tertiary Education Quality and Standards Agency. He said the body had “gone from being a risk-based assessment of higher education institutions into a one-size-fits-all approach” that stifled creativity.