Shaking up the universities

Published as ‘New lessons’, Geelong Advertiser, Monday 22 December 2008, p. 19.

The Bradley Report into Australia’s higher education handed down this week is a weighty document at 304 pages and with 46 separate recommendations, so it is not to be taken lightly or quickly. The report points out that Australia is slipping behind other countries in its higher education provision, at a time when international competition requiring a highly educated population is increasing. It sets goals of raising the proportion of 25–34 year olds with at least a first degree from its current 29% to 40% by 2020. It also aims to increase the proportion of students from disadvantaged backgrounds in higher education, including indigenous people, those living in rural and remote areas and those from low socio-economic backgrounds. A demand driven system is to be achieved by providing funding to students so they can select and pay for the higher education of their choice.

This assumes that students know what they want to study and where best to do so. This is a good and responsible position to start from. But in practice many students find that when they get to university or another institution of higher education, the subject and the way it is taught or the conditions attached to it are not what they expected or wanted. So they change. Can the institutions respond quickly enough to accommodate this? Should they be driven by a student popularity poll or by what the university or what society says they should be taught? For example, we are clearly short of scientists and mathematicians and health professionals, having to import these skills often from poorer countries that also lack the numbers they need. But if Australian students assess that they would prefer to do arts or social sciences should the institutions of higher learning simply become suppliers of liberal arts? There is a get-out clause in the report that would allow the government to exclude a course of study from the demand-driven system if it wished to regulate student or graduate numbers. This micro-management in turn would have implications for the institutions and the students.

Some of the analysis of key issues in the report is acute and if acted upon could ameliorate the damage done to universities in recent years. For example, ‘There are now clear signs that the quality of the educational experience is declining; the established mechanisms for assuring quality nationally need updating; and student-to-staff ratios are unacceptably high.’ Also, the underfunding of research infrastructure leads to universities cross-subsidising research from funds obtained for teaching which results in a further decline in the student experience.

The report recommends that the Australian Government should assume full responsibility for the regulation of higher education in Australia, but qualifies this by saying it is important to retain a strong element of local knowledge and responsiveness. A new independent regulatory body is required to implement policy and ensure compliance. The regulatory body must be independent of government to ensure objectivity in its decision-making and advice.

The report suggests that universities should not all be alike, and broadly there should be three types of institution, comprehensive universities (with research strength in three or more broad areas), specialist universities (research in one or two broad areas) and other higher education institutions (with scholarship but no research requirement).

Independently of the report, and potentially at variance from it, is a separate quality assurance exercise being developed in the research area, which is trying to move away from the current practice of measuring inputs and quantities towards outputs and quality.

Informed sources indicate that Julia Gillard, the Deputy Prime Minister and Minister for Education, who commissioned the report in March this year, is not at all pleased by certain of the recommendations. The government will not respond formally to the report until March next year, but it will be surprising if it is implemented in full. In particular the proposed funding is likely to come under close scrutiny. There is a political dimension. Is the minister spread too thin? Having done a sterling job with industrial relations is she going to be able to deliver this part of the education revolution the Rudd government promised before and after taking office?

Professor Stuart Macintyre of the University of Melbourne, former Dean of the Faculty of Arts, who also chaired the recent advisory panel on a new national history curriculum, suggests that breaking down the unified national system of universities into three tiers will promote a drift from regional universities and some metropolitan ones to the more prestigious ones. He thinks a national accreditation scheme is likely to be resisted by some of the leading universities, who are already self-accrediting, and by the states.

Deakin University Vice-Chancellor, Professor Sally Walker argues ‘that many of the proposals reflect Deakin’s goals as set out in our Strategic Plan – Delivering Effective Partnerships. In some cases, if the recommendation is approved by the Australian Government, we will receive assistance to achieve our objectives.’ The extent of the similarity between Deakin’s goals and the aims of the Review Panel is striking. For example, the Report says: ‘Providers in regional and remote areas need to be encouraged and supported to build up partnerships with local communities, providers in other sectors of education, business and industry.’ But she is aware, ‘There will be challenges for Deakin, particularly in relation to research, but Deakin has always risen to challenges and I have no doubt that it will continue to do so.’

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