Australia’s demand-driven university system has been a success and should be extended to private universities, further education colleges and sub-degree programmes, a government-commissioned review has concluded.
The review was commissioned in November by Australia’s incoming Liberal-National Coalition government amid concerns that the uncapping of undergraduate places, introduced in 2012 by the previous Labor government, had led to a decline in quality.
However, authors David Kemp, an education minister in the previous Coalition government in the late 1990s, and Andrew Norton, his former adviser and now director of the higher education programme at thinktank the Grattan Institute, says the uncapping of the system has led to improved university access for students of all backgrounds, greater competition over enrolments and more responsiveness to the needs of the economy and student demand.
In his Autumn Statement last December, George Osborne, the UK chancellor, said England would abolish undergraduate number caps from 2015-16.
The Kemp-Norton review notes that student numbers in Australia have leapt by more than 100,000, to 577,000, since 2009, when universities began ramping up recruitment ahead of uncapping. This “inevitably” means that entry standards at most universities have fallen. But although students with lower entry grades are more likely to drop out, the review finds that this is not true if they first complete a pathway course. This is why it rejects the introduction of mandatory minimum entry standards and recommends instead that the demand-driven system be extended to cover sub-bachelor courses.
It also recommends that further education colleges and private providers delivering higher education be included in the system. Some universities told the review that the demand-driven system had increased pressure on them to offer higher-quality teaching. However, Dr Kemp and Mr Norton believe that greater competition for public universities “within the standards and quality framework…will further enhance innovation, quality and efficiency”.
They also say that caps on the numbers of postgraduate students supported by the government should be removed for a small number of courses “with a combination of clear community benefit and modest financial rewards”. However, public support should be scrapped for all other postgraduate courses.
The report’s recommendations on expanding the demand-driven system could be met by charging a loan fee on student lending, justified on the ground that “all students benefit from the more responsive and innovative institutions arising from the demand driven system”.
The authors also suggest removing caps on tuition fee levels, since these limit universities’ “scope for diversity and innovation”.
But Labor’s target for 40 per cent of 25- to 34-year-olds, and 20 per cent of people from low socio-economic backgrounds, to have a degree by 2025 and 2020, respectively, should be dropped since “the important aspect of the demand driven system is that it can adapt to individual needs, not that it can help meet arbitrary centrally determined targets”.
Writing for Times Higher Education, Warren Bebbington, vice-chancellor of the University of Adelaide, a member of the Group of Eight leading universities, says that the review is an opportunity to “transform Australian higher education into the most dynamic system in the world”.
If the chance is taken, Professor Bebbington writes, the country could develop a system with as much variety of provision as the US, but “without the crippling debts that American students suffer”.
But, he writes, “the review’s recommendations have generated anguished outcry from our public universities. It seems for some vice-chancellors, ‘demand driven’ means only that government should demand everyone is driven into the present public universities. The sameness which bedevils Australian higher education, where we all try to be comprehensive research universities, would simply go on and on.”
Nick Hillman, director of the UK’s Higher Education Policy Institute, which is set to publish its own paper soon looking at Australia’s experience, said that the Australian policy had been “successful in promoting innovation and widening access” but warned that the system had “cost more than expected”.
“We must learn from the many successes, but also the unintended consequences and the cost over-runs if England is to make a success of the same policy,” he said.