Monday, October 19, 2009

Australian higher education - the Qualifications Framework, Indian Students and Rudd Government problems in service delivery

Just a brief post today updating myself on developments in the Australian higher education sector.

Back on 27 August 2009 in Indonesian Government downgrades certain Australian degrees to diploma status I referred to problems that had arisen in the context of Indonesian Government ranking of certain Australian qualifications. A key problem lay in different input standards between Indonesian requirements and those set out in Australia's National Qualification Framework.

Some time ago, the Australian Qualifications Framework Council released a discussion paper, Strengthening the AQF. Comments close this Friday 24 October. The paper may seem a little dry, but is worthwhile reading because of the way it affects all Australian levels of education.

Interestingly, there is still no apparent interface between the AQF and the qualifications awarded by Australia's specialist medical colleges.

The problems with Indian students that I discussed in Indian Students Australia - the real lessons and in two earlier posts (links in the first post) have had an interesting double whammy effect.

According to an article by Andrew Trounson in The Australian, the number of Indian students applying for student visas fell from 20,000 in the June quarter to 11,000 in the September quarter. That's a very big fall, but its about what might have been expected. However, another factor has come into play as well, hence the double whammy. Because of the tightening in visa requirements, total visa rejections rose to 4400 in the September quarter from 3308 in the June quarter. The net effect  was a fall in the number of Indian student visa  approvals from 17,237 in the June quarter to just 6804 in the September quarter. That's a huge fall.

Despite all the troubles, it appears from an IDP survey of 1130 Indian participants that Australia still rates well ahead of British, US, Canada and New Zealand on Indian perceptions of safety, government policies, access to residency and student visas.

In July in Education Targets and Australia's Universities - delivery problems for the Rudd Government I used simple back-of-envelope calculations to show the the Government's targets on higher education were likely to be unachievable.  I followed this up with another piece in October, Use and abuse of socio-economic rankings in public policy.

Now as it happens there have been quite a few stories and scuttlebutt, I cannot give links, suggesting that Australia's biggest universities have ruled out any further increases in student numbers. As I read it, they are really focused on maintaining their places in the global university rankings. I think that they are right to do so, but it has all sorts of structural implication.

Take Sydney, where the three biggest universities - Sydney, NSW and UTS - are all located in the city/eastern suburbs. The city universities are simply overloaded, and also face problems in accommodation and access.

The fastest growth in young people lies in Western Sydney. Here the University of Western Sydney is the main institution. However, it already has over 35,000 students (24,000 full time student equivalents). I can't help wondering where the students from Western Sydney are to go to university.

  One of the perverse distributional effects in all this is the bias towards country students. In addressing social and economic disadvantage, the big city universities are all offering special treatment to country students. This actually takes students away from regional universities.

More importantly, and I have not seen any objective analysis on this, it gives a student from say the small town of Bingara on the western slopes near Armidale a significantly better chance (20%+?) of getting to university than an exact equivalent from Campbelltown in Sydney's west.

Far be it for me to argue against a country bias. Still, I don't actually think its fair.    


Thomas said...

USyd has openly stated they are cutting a raft of spots over the next years so as part of their effort to become a research-based university. Seems like an effective and more immediate way to reduce over-crowded courses.

But, as you have indicated, this is going to put a lot more pressure on other universities (I expect UNSW first, as that's, generally, USyd's main competition in the state) for undergraduate spots. And if UNSW does the same, it's going to force even more students to others. Huge over-crowding is going to result in some of the universities.

UWS would be smart to build a fourth (fifth?) campus with a mind to build a fifth beyond that. If the market is there, and it's growing, they should try and harness it. I think that if the "top" universities are intending to become research-based, it's going to invariably created a perceived tiered system. UWS would become the primary provider of university services outside of the research universities.

If they don't expand, only Macquarie might be in a position to do so as well. I can't imagine UTS being in the financial position to, though they would be a viable option in if they were. The rest of the regional ones can't either. And if no one expands, the system, as well as future students, might be in a bit of trouble.

Jim Belshaw said...

Interesting points, Thomas. My understanding is that UNSW is following the same course as Sydney. UTS is smaller, ?31,000 students, but I am not sure of either its plans or student capacity.

Macquarie has announced re-development plans, but I am not to what degree these allow for increased undergraduate levels. Macquarie has something over 30,000 students at present.

Of the regionals, Charles Sturt with over 34,000 students has already entered the very large class. Its multi-campus structure allows for expansion. UNE is smaller with 18,000. SCU is a bit smaller still with 15,000.

There are all sorts of interesting strategic, demographic and systemic issues in all this. The bottom line is, I think, that the system as a whole has to change, but nobody knows quite how.