Norton turns ‘firepower’ on student number allocation in ANU post

Respected policy analyst nominates funding and student loans as key areas of research

November 12, 2019
Andrew Norton

Australia’s higher education funding system will have to incorporate a “sensible” way of allocating university places now that the federal government has capped them, a sector expert has said.

Higher education policy analyst Andrew Norton said that the demand-driven system, which the government axed in late 2017, had been more than a mechanism for expanding university enrolments. It had also been a way of dealing with “the basic distributional questions” that had plagued the previous centrally managed approach.

“What if you allocate places to a university that can’t fill them?” Mr Norton asked. “What if you give them to [disciplinary] clusters where the demand isn’t there?

“If we’re not going back to the DDS, we need some better way of distributing student places between universities and courses. We’ve got to think very carefully about how we ensure extra funding goes where it’s needed most.”

It is a question that Mr Norton plans to apply himself to in his new role at the Australian National University Centre for Social Research and Methods, where he will be professor in the practice of higher education.

The appointment, which begins on 2 December, will see him leading the development of a new higher education policy research programme. While its focus is yet to be determined, he said that policy proposals for funding university places would be top of the list.

A supporter of demand-driven funding, Mr Norton was a member of a government-appointed panel that reviewed the demand-driven system in 2013 and 2014 and an expert panel advising on higher education reform in 2016-17.

Widely respected for his evidence-based analysis, he began his career as adviser to then education and training minister David Kemp in the late 1990s. He went on to work with libertarian thinktank the Centre for Independent Studies, simultaneously serving as policy adviser at the University of Melbourne.

More recently he has been higher education programme director with the Grattan Institute and an honorary fellow at Melbourne’s Centre for the Study of Higher Education.

Matthew Gray, director of the Centre for Social Research and Methods, said Mr Norton would bring “real firepower” to its work. “We have a focus on research data and research methods, and applying them to understanding important economic and social policy issues. He’s a very good fit for us,” Professor Gray said.

Professor Gray said that he expected Mr Norton’s work to benefit from the centre’s data analysis and survey conducting capabilities and its “access to a very wide range of data”, some of it not easily acquired.

Mr Norton said that data availability had become an increasing problem over the past 18 months. He had lost access to unit record enrolment data, which underpins much of his analytical work, because of government security concerns. His new centre has met the education department’s requirements for obtaining this data.

He also expects ANU colleagues’ tax and welfare expertise to assist in another area of research focus, the student loan scheme. He plans to investigate how to improve loan repayment arrangements so that graduates do not suddenly lose multiple welfare payments when they reach certain income thresholds.

Mr Norton said that his first task would be the sixth instalment of the Mapping Australian Higher Education report series that he began at Grattan in 2012. “There is demand for it,” he explained. “It’s the one thing where people say, ‘when’s the next one coming?’”

john.ross@timeshighereducation.com

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