Now that the Senate has rejected Pyne’s university deregulation plan, the obvious question is, what is Plan B? The first, negative answer: there is no acceptable plan that will deliver what the advocates of deregulation wanted, namely a highly stratified system, catering to a smaller minority of the population than at present, and topped by high-status institutions comparable to Yale and Harvard. That’s the US model and, as a system for educating young people, as opposed to generating research and reproducing a tiny elite, it’s been a miserable failure.
The correct way to think about this is to begin with the core objective of the process: to provide young Australians with post-school education that fits them for work in a modern economy and life in a modern society. That leads to two main principles
* A single system encompassing both universities and post-school technical education with easy flow between the two
* Uncapped access with an objective of (near) universal participation in some form of post-school education
* As with school education, the aim should not be stratification by quality, but the provision of a high-quality education for all, with resource allocation based on educational needs, not institutional history or individual wealth
I’ll leave aside, for the moment, the problems of the TAFE sector, though these are, I think, more urgent and difficult than those of the universities.
The big problem with what I’m proposing is that it will require more money for undergraduate education. That’s because the existing system relies on a mixture of student payments (through HECS), government funding and a cross-subsidy from fee-paying overseas students. There’s no substantial scope to get more money from overseas students, so the more domestic students the more thinly that cross-subsidy is spread. Similarly, although more government funding is merited, maintaining existing funding on a per-student basis while expanding numbers is probably too much to hope for. However, a clear focus on the core goal of universal post-school education would help a lot, though it necessarily poses some tough choices.
Broadly speaking, the goal I’m thinking about is to maintain existing teaching resources per student, while expanding access to cover a steadily increasing proportion of the population.
Some ideas are listed below (over the fold)
* Ban advertising and marketing activities directed at domestic students. All Australian universities currently spend large sums on advertising, mainly in their home city markets. The ads are invariably vapid and uninformative, of the kind that is supposed to raise “brand awareness”. All they do is shuffle those students ill-informed enough to be swayed by such nonsense from one institution to another, leaving all with less resources to do the actual job of teaching.
* Separating teaching and research funding, and relying more on teaching-focused positions. The ideal that all university teachers should be active researchers worked well when higher education was confined to an elite, but it’s been problematic ever since the mass expansion of the 1970s and particularly since the end of the binary system (under which the teaching-focused assumption applied at the institutional level).
* Tightening the focus of HECS to its core goals, for example by capping the amount that can be borrowed under HECS-HELP schemes for professional education and limiting access for private providers, where abuse has been common. This would enable the effective subsidy for undergraduate students to be increased.
* Constraining institutions that undermine the cross-subsidy from overseas students (and often act as immigration rackets). The typical example is an inner-city “campus” of a regional university, catering almost entirely to overseas students. I’d suggest a requirement that domestic students in a given course of study should receive at least the same resources per student as are provided in offshoot campuses like this.
* A modest, say 15 per cent, increase in HECS fees. This would still leave fees far below the lowest levels contemplated under deregulation. An increase in fees, as an alternative to capping places, is justified, in my view, because capped access provides an effective subsidy to students who get in at the expense of those who don’t.
Finally, I’ll make some observations about the organizational structure of the university system. The bodies claiming to represent part or all of the university system, notably Universities Australia and the Go8, have performed disastrously badly throughout this exercise. In my view, there is no justification for the existence of a group like the Go8 any more than if a group of public high schools serving relatively wealthy areas formed their own group to lobby for more funding. Even if such a group were justified in principle, the appalling shoddiness of the arguments put up by the leaders of this group provide a self-refutation of its claims to excellence. Obviously, the principle of freedom of association means such groups can’t be stopped from forming, but I’d urge governments to treat them as the rent-seeking lobbyists they are.
As for Universities Australia (the dishonest renaming applied to what used to be the Australian Vice-Chancellors Committee(, this episode has shown the weakness of treating universities as synonymous with their chief executives. The much-repeated claim that “all universities support deregulation” was shown to carry zero political weight when it translated to “39 (later 38, and then even fewer) Vice-Chancellors support deregulation”. The sector would do far better if it was represented by a body that had a claim to speak for the entire university community rather than a handful of senior officials.