Kim Carr, who was appointed minister for higher education, innovation, industry, science and research on July 1 by new prime minister Kevin Rudd, has also pledged to re-examine A$2.3 billion (£1.4 billion) in scheduled cuts to universities.
Australian undergraduate numbers were uncapped by the Labor government in 2010 following the seminal “Bradley Review” of Australian higher education, which said Australia needed to increase the proportion of people between 25 and 34 earning degrees from 32 per cent to 40 per cent by 2025.
The demand-driven system was introduced by the then deputy prime minister and minister for education, employment and workplace relations, Julia Gillard, whom Mr Rudd deposed as prime minister last week in a bitter leadership election.
Mr Carr, who also served as minister for innovation, industry, science and research following Labor’s election victory in 2007 until 2011, told the Guardian Australia website that the moved had allowed an extra 190,000 students to study at university: “That’s a tremendous opportunity for working-class students,” he said.
But he indicated that he shared critics’ concerns that the rise in undergraduate numbers had been achieved at the expense of standards.
“We have to make sure that across the system quality also remains a priority. I am a very strong believer in equity, but I am also a believer in excellence, so I need to consider whether it is appropriate to re-examine the growth rates in the university system,” he said.
He also said he would look again at whether to go through with the higher education cuts announced in April to help pay for reform of schools, against which the higher education sector has been lobbying hard.
“The universities…have conveyed important messages to the government and I will be talking to them about the effects of those cuts,” he told the website.
Belinda Robinson, chief executive of Universities Australia, urged the new prime minister to reassess all recent cuts to the university budget, which she put at A$3.8 billion over the past eight months.
“The eight out of ten Australians who believe that budget cuts to higher education threaten Australia’s future will be looking to Mr Rudd and Senator Carr to reconsider these short-sighted decisions,” she told The Australian newspaper.
She also said there were “a lot of universities which feel there may be good reasons to review the pros and cons of the demand-driven system”.
Concerns have also been raised that mushrooming student numbers will make Australia’s student loan system unaffordable, and the opposition Coalition - which polls suggest will win September’s general election - is also widely expected to re-impose a numbers cap.