Thursday, January 11, 2007

Universities and the Competition for Students

Photo: Booloominbah, University of New England

Recently I have written a fair bit on higher education in Australia. It seem that I cannot let the topic alone.

This week there have been several further stories, pieces of information, that again show a sector in change.

Monday's(8 January) Sydney Morning Herald carried a story by Anne Patty and Harriet Alexander about the way that Sydney universities are offering scholarships to those with 99 plus UAIs to try to attract them, a competition now extending down to attempts to target potential future stars at year 8 level.

In another story in the same edition, Harriet Alexander reported that Ji Gao received scholarship offers from four Sydney universities the day after she learned that her UAI score was 99.95 - Sydney University and NSW each $10,000 per annum, Macquarie $4,000 and UTS $13,000. She also reported on the breakfasts and receptions that that both UNSW and Sydney held for students who scored 99.9 and above.

Students are wily beasts. To quote Ji Gao, she said that if there was only $1,000 or $2,000 in it, she would choose her (unspecified) university and course of choice. Now here, and based only on the small sample available to me, I have noticed a fascinating shift in student choice.

Several years ago, in one of my first forays into trying to influence planning at the University of New England, I argued in a series of emails to Ingrid Moses, then VC, that UNE should try to maintain arts. My argument was that I could see signs of a swing back to arts and to the university experience itself, both areas in which UNE had been so strong. Ingrid was very polite, but I think that I was seen as being a tad old fashioned.

Well, it seems the swing I was talking about may be here. I was fascinated to discover just how many among my daughter's friends are doing or planning to do arts, liberal arts or combination arts with another such as economics. This includes kids with UAIs as high as 99 plus. Further, the idea of a university as a university had considerable appeal.

Accepting that this is a small and largely female sample, I am not sure that the result should come as a surprise. While I have previously expressed doubts about the Generation Y or NextGen classification as meaningful subdivisions, these outcomes would seem to fit with some of the features as defined.

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