Sunday, March 08, 2009

Sunday Essay - Julia Gillard's proposals for Australian higher education

During the week Jullia Gillard, Australia's Commonwealth Education Minister and Deputy PM, foreshadowed the Commonwealth Government's latest moves in implementing what PM Kevin Rudd has described as his education revolution.

Back in December in The real education revolution… Neil Whitfield expressed his reservations about the Rudd Government's approach. I responded with a companion post, Australia's confusions over education vs training, a post that drew some interesting comments. Neil has now returned to fray with Recession solving teacher shortage?.

As with so many of our discussions, Neil and I write from our different perspectives and experience but find ourselves on common ground. In this case, our shared concerns about obsession with measurement; about the confusions over the varying roles of education and training; about the failure to really discuss the purpose of education.

As in many other areas, there is something very mechanistic about the Rudd Government's approach - this is education for national efficiency. To quote Julia Gillard:

In an era when investment in knowledge and skills promises to be the ultimate determinant of national and individual prosperity, Australia is losing ground against our competitors.

The Government's new approach to university education was set out in a speech Ms Gillard made to the Universities Australia conference.

We begin with a target:
I announce today that our ambition is that by 2025, 40 percent of all 25-34 year olds will have a qualification at bachelor level or above. Not just to have enrolled in higher education, but to have completed an undergraduate degree. Today that figure stands at 32 percent.

We then move to a major structural change in the way universities are funded:
I therefore also announce today that all Australian universities will be funded on the basis of student demand from 2012.

This means that we will fund a Commonwealth supported place for all domestic students accepted into an eligible, accredited higher education course at a recognised public higher education provider. Universities will not receive funding for places they do not deliver.

The current funding floor for universities will be maintained for the calendar years 2009, 2010 and 2011. This will give under-enrolled providers certainty, in the form of a limit on how much funding they can lose for places that they do not provide. This will help them to re-position themselves for the new system.

And the current cap on over-enrolment will be raised from 5 to 10 percent from 2010 and then wholly removed in 2012.

The trifecta is completed with a new accreditation scheme:
I am therefore announcing today that the Government will establish a national regulatory and quality agency for higher education.

The regulator will accredit providers, carry out audits of standards and performance, protect and quality assure international education, streamline current regulatory arrangements to reduce duplication and provide for national consistency.

What does all this mean?

From an historical perspective, it marks the last stage in a fundamental shift in the relationships between universities and Government, the end of self-accreditation.

In the past, what universities taught, how they taught, what qualifications they awarded, were all matters for individual institutions. This changed fundamentally with mass university education. Increasingly, tied funding made the universities Government creatures. However, unlike other parts of the education system, they remained self-accrediting, finally responsible for setting their own standards. Now Government will effectively set standards.

Does this matter? After all, shouldn't Government set standards? And the universities themselves don't seem worried?

Perhaps it doesn't. Perhaps it's too late anyway. However, I suspect that it does matter because of the way accreditation actually works in practice.

Ms Gillard was at pains to suggest that the Government was not talking about more prescriptive red tape. However, she also said:
We have to know where we are succeeding and where we are failing if our investments are to be effective.

A key task will also be to establish objective and comparative benchmarks of quality and performance.

This is the national efficiency approach. I wonder where knowledge for knowledge's sake, critical thought, even eccentricity fits in all this?

I accept, if with considerable sadness, that it is no longer possible unless you are very wealthy for my daughters and their generation to have access to the same type of university experience that I had. However, what do we mean by "objective and comparative benchmarks", by "quality", by "perfomance"? All this seems to have gone straight through to the keeper.

Note, here, that Ms Gillard refers in her speech to "an eligible, accredited higher education course at a recognised public higher education provider." So we are going to be accrediting courses, not just institutions.

Note, too, that once this type of accreditation scheme is in place it is likely to accrete barnacles, new requirements, as perceived needs change. This has been the Australian experience with other initiatives in education and training.

The decision to free up funding to give students more choices, universities somewhat greater freedoms is, I think, better than current arrangements. However, there are some competitive issues that we need to recognise.

The new arrangements are likely to favour bigger institutions in large catchment areas. They can now expand places, should they choose, within the economic limits set by Government funding of individual students and courses.

It is not clear to me how Ms Gilliards' stated aim of enhanced diversity is in fact to be achieved in the new arrangments.

Finally, I am not sure that I have a view one way or the other on the 40% aspiration.

To begin with, I am not sure of its implications in terms of simple maths.

To get from the current 32% to 40% implies an increase in student numbers combined with higher completion rates. We could achieve this by reducing standards, by dumbing down university courses. Clearly this is not in the Government's mind, but there has already been pressure within individual institutions (and some scandals) associated with the need to get pass rates up.

And what does it mean for VET (vocational education and training) numbers and composition?

On the surface, the 40% target would seem to imply some diversion of students from VET to university education. Is this a good thing? I am not sure.

I will look at the announced VET changes in a later post. For the moment, I simply note that, for both the university and VET sectors, the devil lies in the detail. This includes the unintended consequences that always seems to flow from changes of this type.


Anonymous said...
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Unknown said...

Great post Jim. Made me think quite a bit about the whole issue. I knew where I stood on most of the points you raised, but a few of yours made me reevaluate.

Jim Belshaw said...

Thanks, Thomas.It is a while since I have had time to do this simple focused stuff. It helps me understand my self!