Australia’s demand-driven admissions system will never be resurrected in its original form, but a détente between the country’s government and universities could deliver something better, according to a higher education analyst.
Long-standing bureaucrat Robert Griew said years of tinkering with the uncapped approach to enrolment – culminating in its suspension last December – will make it very expensive for any minister to “reinflate” it. Yet it could still evolve into a broader system that funds different types of providers and qualifications, and better meets contemporary needs, he said.
Recent developments offered an escape from a mutually unsatisfactory stalemate between government and universities after they squandered years on a “public tit for tat” over funding, while the educational landscape was changing around them, Mr Griew argued.
One such development that Mr Griew was the government’s commitment to re-examine standards for providers and qualifications, and to change the way it allocates postgraduate and sub-bachelor places. The other was the Labor opposition’s indication that, while it would reintroduce the demand-driven system, “significant modernisation” would be involved.
“If you read the tea leaves, it’s time for the sector to get ahead of those games and do some creative thinking,” Mr Griew told Times Higher Education. “From a policy point of view it would be good to have a demand-driven system.
“But it will be more effective if it goes together with some thinking about the higher education that is being funded. If you think about the kinds of hybrids and new models of delivery we want for a modern economy, that might also help make the demand-driven system more affordable.”
Mr Griew’s 25-year public service career culminated in a seven-year stint as associate secretary of the federal Department of Education and Training, where he oversaw higher education, research and international education. He is now a principal with management consultants Nous Group, where he has released a paper on how to end the stalemate.
His intervention comes as the sector braces for next month’s federal budget. It is expected to contain more details about how higher education will be funded after 2019, when the government’s two-year freeze of teaching funds comes to an end.
While a resumption in funding increases is anticipated from 2020, the signs are that it will not be enough to cover inflation – let alone a bubble in would-be student numbers triggered by a historic “baby bonus” paid to parents in the early 2000s.
Mr Griew said Canberra civil servants had long been alarmed by “runaway expenditure” in the demand-driven system, and the funding freeze had yielded substantial savings. “It’s just a reality that if it’s paused for a few years, it’s quite expensive to get to go back to that level.
“An education minister would be under pressure to find the funding from somewhere else, or a government might say we’ll look across the whole of government to fund it. Either way, the money’s got to come from somewhere.”
He said a better outcome would be to cut costs by adding polytechnics and teaching-only institutions to the mix of funded providers, and by merging technical and academic teaching to reconfigure some qualifications.
Mr Griew said universities had resisted recent reform proposals partly out of “residual elitism” and a reluctance to open up the “university club” to other types of institutions or “other people’s children”.
“The world has changed,” he told THE. “Look at newspapers and professional services. Not many industries get to cruise along, taking their product for granted.”