One of the big themes in the debate over university education has been that we should have a more differentiated system, rather than a ‘one-size fits all’ solution. This view is shared by market-oriented reformers and by some traditionalists, who look back nostalgically to the days when each state had one university, catering to a small elite, while the rest went to tech, or teachers college or (for the majority) the school of hard knocks. In the idealised view, universities would compete with diverse offerings, and the informed market choices of consumers (18-year olds and their parents) would produce an ideal outcome.
In reality, the quasi-market policies that have been dominant for the last couple of decades have reduced diversity on all dimensions except one. Before the reforms that began in the 1980s, the tertiary sector included many different types of institutions (unis, CAES, institutes of technology and TAFE), and the 1970-vintage universities consciously sought to provide an innovative alternative to the long-established sandstones. Now, there are just universities and TAFE. Policies encouraging universities to nominate “flagship” programs produced the unsurprising (but apparently unexpected) result that everyone went for MBAs and no-one for pure mathematics. Responsiveness to consumer demand produced plenty of courses in cinema studies and very few in classics. And so on. There are still some attempts at doing things differently, such as the “Melbourne model”, but overall the pattern is one of identical responses to identical incentives.
On the other hand, the reforms have amplified long-standing inequalities in wealth and status between universities. Despite the rhetoric of competition, the relative rankings of Australian universities were determined more than 100 years ago, when the sandstone universities were established, followed by the precursors of the “Dawkins universities”. The reforms did not shake these rankings, but they widened the gap between the sandstones and the 1970-vintage unis – before the reforms, a university was a university, and status differences were much less important.
The model here has been the US, which has been very successful in university education, with a highly stratified system. But, the US model is breaking down as the demand for educated workers increases. As I discuss in this CT post, the number of undergraduate places in top-end US universities has been almost unchanged for decades, and the same seems to be true for the flagship state universities with which Australian unis would compare themselves.
The growth areas have been two-year community colleges, second-tier state universities (roughly equivalent to the former CAEs that now make up the bottom tier of the Australian university system) and for-profit degree mills like the “University” of Phoenix. These institutions, and especially the for-profits, have appalling dropout rates, with the result that the proportion of young Americans completing degrees, stagnant for many years, now appears to be declining.
The US was the first country to move to a norm of universal high school completion and mass higher education, back in the 1950s (with expanded access for women and blacks in the 1960s and 1970s). That was both a consequence and a cause of US dominance of the global economy. To an important extent, the US is still living on its capital in this respect, but the model is no longer sustainable and we should not try to emulate it.
Australia should aim for diversity in educational offerings, but not for stratification in quality. We should encourage all young Australians to complete high-school and provide them all with high-quality university, technical or trade education after that.