Australia’s watchdog warns of US-style ‘long tail’ of bad institutions

The US higher education system is blighted by a “very long tail of really bad institutions that are taking people’s money for degrees that don’t give any advantage at all to students”, according to the head of Australia’s quality watchdog.

April 16, 2011

Denise Bradley, interim chair of Australia’s Tertiary Education Quality and Standards Agency, said there was a heated debate in Australia about the merits of concentrating resources on an elite group of universities at the expense of the whole system.

But those urging university funders to “pick winners” were losing the argument, she said.

Speaking at a conference on university rankings and quality assurance in Brussels on 14 April, Professor Bradley said the Australian government was committed to developing a “world-class system” rather than a small number of “world-class universities”.

“The fact of the matter is that there is something of a battle going on between the education part of the bureaucracy and [the education] minister and the research part of the bureaucracy and [the research] minister. And currently the research part of the bureaucracy is not winning,” she told an audience of senior European university leaders at the third annual symposium on university rankings and quality assurance in Europe, organised by the Centre for Parliamentary Studies.

“There is a pressure for greater specialisation and the picking of winners...I have to say that the political realities of Australia and the way in which votes are cast lead me to think that there’ll be great difficulty for any government in concentrating research funding or directly influencing the missions of universities much more than it does,” said Professor Bradley, who led the landmark Review of Australian Higher Education in 2008.

“My own personal view is that governments don’t need to do that. They just need to set up a competitive system. And what will actually happen, if it is a true competition, is that differentiation will occur. We see that already in Australia.”

Currently, because research funding is distributed on a competitive basis, about 70 per cent is already concentrated on Australia’s eight leading institutions.

“We have to be careful. We don’t want to have an American system, with a very long tail of really bad institutions that are taking people’s money for degrees that don’t give any advantage at all to students. We really care about that in Australia.”

She said although the American system was characterised by elite institutions such as Harvard University, which tops all the world university rankings, it also had “hundreds of institutions in a tail that are providing very, very low quality education”.

“There is unanimity in Australia…that this is not a system we want to have in our country,” she said.

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