Policy instability risks undermining Australia’s “enabling” programmes, closing off a major route for first-in-family students with university aspirations.
Enabling programmes – typically foundation courses of a handful of subjects – prepare people for degree-level study by helping them to sharpen their literacy, numeracy and critical thinking. Experts fear that they could become a casualty of the funding freeze announced in last December’s mid-year economic and fiscal outlook (MYEFO).
Enabling programmes might also be affected by another MYEFO measure, which would see a “new allocation mechanism” applied to government-supported sub-bachelor places next year, including enabling programmes. The government says that the mechanism will be based on “institutional outcomes and industry needs”, but it has released little detail.
Times Higher Education understands that although this measure does not require legislation, the government will consult the sector before making any changes. The proposal bears similarities to a plan outlined in the May budget, which would have seen universities and private colleges competing to offer enabling places through three-year tenders.
While this idea was subsequently abandoned, educators said that the criteria being considered to assess the tenders – students’ completion rates and their success in further study – were unsuitable for people who were in effect giving higher education a try-out. David Bull, president of the National Association of Enabling Educators of Australia, said that a “fair-sized proportion” of these students ended up deciding that university was not for them.
The May proposals would also have scrapped a A$3,271 (£1,790) loading universities earn for each enabling course student they enrol, allowing them instead to charge the equivalent amount in fees. Universities were reluctant to do this, saying that many of the students came from disadvantaged families averse to debt.
THE understands that the government no longer plans to remove the loading or to award places to private colleges. Mr Bull said that even with the loading in place, many universities lost money on enabling programmes.
He said that they accepted the losses in the expectation of future income from students progressing on to full degrees. But universities can no longer rely on this compensatory revenue stream, after the December funding freeze in effect ended Australia’s demand-driven system.
Mr Bull said that the University of Southern Queensland, where he heads USQ’s Open Access College, would maintain enabling places because of its “long-established history” in recruiting disadvantaged students. “But for other institutions that don’t have any difficulty filling their quotas in undergraduate programmes, it will be a bit of a deterrent.”
He said that most college directors had decided to take a “steady ship” approach this year, maintaining enabling enrolments while they monitored policy developments.
University provision of other sub-degree programmes, such as diplomas, has also been affected by the policy instability. Under the proposals outlined in May, universities would have been funded to offer unlimited places in diplomas that focused on “industry needs” and articulated into related degrees.
Instead, universities now face the twin prospect of capped degree places and uncertain arrangements for diploma funding from next year.
The MYEFO changes have been blamed for the Australian National University’s decision to accept no enrolments this year in its diploma of languages programme. Deputy vice-chancellor Marnie Hughes-Warrington said that ANU was in discussions with the education department “about how the measures in MYEFO will impact on the programme”.
She said that ANU’s move would not affect students who had begun the diploma before this year, and she pointed out that the university still offered language degrees.