The Rudd government’s announcement to ‘re-examine’ controversial cuts to university funding has been met with considerable concern from many academics. The dramatic (and forced) cabinet reshuffle saw the reinstatement of Kim Carr to his former Innovation portfolio in the Federal Cabinet, whilst adding Higher Education portfolio.
Carr commented that “there will need to be a re-examination where possible of the funding priorities in higher education” alluding to the end of Labor’s demand-driven education. Members of the sector have raised concerns that dramatic increases in student enrollments have compromised the quality of tertiary education.
Demand-driven increases in enrollments have allowed an addition 190,000 students previously would not have been able to access tertiary education to study at university. Carr, however, voiced fears that despite the benefits to these ‘working-class students.’ and belief in ‘equity’ that he is ‘also a believer in excellence,’ signaling the need to ‘re-examine the growth rates in the university system.’
This is the same government who, in 2008, responded to the Bradley Review by setting the target of 40% of Australia’s 25-34 year olds be degree-educated by 2025. In 2012 36.8% of young people in this age bracket had a degree, an increase from 29% in 2006. Caps to places will see this rise in enrollment stagnate.
This is the same government who criticised the Coalitian’s ‘born to rule’ mentality in the consideration of capping student places in 2011.
This is the same government who have proclaimed time and time again that Australia is to be ranked in the top five internationally for education.
Do we see some disparity?
Increases to student enrollments have allowed regional universities to flourish. Regional Universities Network chairman David Battersby considers the Gillard government policy to be a ‘bold, nation-building move,’ that has facilitated ‘an enormous opportunity for regional Australia to catch up with metropolitan Australia varnish.”
Vice-Chancellor Jane Den Hollander of Deakin University and University of Western Sydney acting vice-chancellor Rhonda Hawkins have spoken openly in the media this week of the benefits of increased enrollments at their campuses, particularly as it has facilitated access to universities for disadvantaged students.
Concerns have been raised that the number of university offers to students receiving an ATAR below 50 has double from 2 per cent to 4 per cent between 2011 and this year. There is no evidence that the ATAR is a determinant of university excellence.
Speaking this week on ABC radio, Vice-Chancellor of the University of New England Jim Barber stated 80% of enrollments were not based on year 12 results: due to the high intake of mature aged students studying (mostly) via distance education. In this situation the ATAR argument as an indicator of excellence is entirely irrelevant.
A 2011 Group of Eight review of higher education funding outlined the establishment of the Tertiary Education Quality and Standards Authority (TESQA), who will mandate detailed standards to ensure quality education in Australian university, with consequences for institutions who fail to meet the standards. The establishment of such an authority will ensure the ‘excellence’ that Carr so desires.
Staff to student ratios (SSR) are a significant barrier to maintaining student quality. SSRs have increased from 14:1 in 1995 to 20:1 in 2008. This statistic contributes to Australian graduates rating their educational experience lower than comparable graduates in the US, UK and Canada. Investment in tertiary education is vital to ensure that Australian students experience the standard of staff and student interaction they deserve.
Public spending on higher education is not an ‘optional extra.’ Higher education is an essential investment in Australia’ future. Higher education enables Australians to be competitive on a global job market where knowledge is key to production and innovation. On Tuesday this week the Australian National University announced it would cut 230 jobs in an effort to generate $51 million in savings: a direct consequence of recent cuts to university funding.
In 2009 total expenditure on educational institutions was 6.0% of GDP, less than the OECD average of 6.2% The local figure was boosted by the one-off spending via the government’s $16 billion ‘building education revolution’ stimulus package. Total expenditure on tertiary education has been declining since the mid 1990s. At a measly 0.7% of GDP Australia has some of the lowest public spending on tertiary education in the OECD. Countries such as Canada, Norway and Sweden invest twice as much funding compared to Australian in public education.
Level of educational attainment significantly improves remuneration: individuals with a tertiary education have salaries that are on average 50% higher than upper secondary or postsecondary non-tertiary educated individuals. Tertiary education is the greater enabler. The great equaliser.
Quality education is dependent on adequate funding at all levels. In 2012 former PM Gillard set the goal for Australia to be ranked in the top five schools in the world for mathematics, science and reading. Ambitious. In the months that followed Gillard announced $14.5 billion for schools via the ‘Gonski’ reforms to education funding: at the expense of tertiary education, who are set to lose $3.8 billion. It is difficult to comprehend how, as a nation, standards of education will be improved if it is not supported at all levels.
To cap places on universities is to deny our most disadvantaged students access to a better and brighter future. How can we pride ourselves on being a nation of a ‘fair go’ when students from the bottom SES quartile are eight times more likely to fail to meet minimum standards of literacy and numeracy in NAPLAN and international testing? The high impact of SES on educational attainment is entirely contradictory to the Australian ethos of equality in education.