Oz elite damn review as a 'road map to mediocrity'

Call for expansion would waste cash and mislead students, top institutions say. John Gill reports

February 26, 2009

After six weeks spent digesting Australia's most comprehensive review of higher education in recent times, the country's elite universities have branded it a "road map to mediocrity".

The Review of Australian Higher Education, chaired by Denise Bradley, former vice-chancellor of the University of South Australia, recommended a radical overhaul of the sector, including a massive expansion in student numbers.

Its significance to Australian higher education has been likened to the impact in the UK of Lord Dearing's review in 1997, but now the Group of Eight, which represents Australia's most prestigious research-led institutions, has criticised its findings.

The group met Julia Gillard, Minister of Education, to discuss its concerns. It said the recommendations of the review risked setting students up for a fall and wasting public money.

"The Australian Government is not well served by the Bradley panel's road map to mediocrity," the executive director of the Group of Eight, Michael Gallagher, wrote in the country's national newspaper, The Australian.

"Its financing model will not sustain quality higher education and university research."

Among the key recommendations of the review, which was published at the end of December, are plans for a voucher system that would allow students to attend any university that accepts them, rather than tie them to the institutions in their own localities.

If pursued, this policy would see funding follow students rather than being split between universities on a pre-agreed formula.

Mr Gallagher said that this approach would encourage institutions to accept more students, even if they were not good enough to flourish.

"Students could be set up for failure and public resources would be wasted. It is unwise to relax entry standards to the bachelor's degree until exit standards are established," he was quoted as saying in The Sydney Morning Herald newspaper.

Mr Gallagher also branded the review's target of getting 40 per cent of Australians aged 25-34 educated to bachelor-degree level by 2020, up from the current 29 per cent, as unachievable.

"The thinking reflects the worn-out, one-size-fits-all notion of a university rather than mission-based structural differentiation fit to varying needs," he said.

The Government is due to publish its response to the review next month. However, Ms Gillard has already expressed doubts about how financially viable the proposals are.

Critics point out that the prevailing economic climate is very different from the one in which the review was commissioned, a fact that has given its opponents significant leverage.

Fred Hilmer, vice-chancellor of the University of New South Wales, told The Australian that the review had not been properly costed, and warned the Government not to accept its recommendations in whole.

Like other Group of Eight leaders, Professor Hilmer is said to be "bristling" at what is seen as the review's attempt to deconcentrate research. Australian concerns echo those of the Russell Group, as leading research-intensive universities in England await next month's quality-related research funding allocations.

john.gill@tsleducation.com.

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