Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Education Targets and Australia's Universities - delivery problems for the Rudd Government

In Ideas, simplicity and continuity in public policy I returned briefly to one of my constant themes, the problems created by the Australian approach to public policy, including the narrow focus on measurable targets. Today there was a story in Australia's Financial Review that rather illustrates my concerns.

As part of its "education revolution" the Rudd Government has set a target of increasing the number of 25 to 34 year olds with university degrees from today's 32 per cent to 40 per cent by 2025. It sounds so good doesn't it? Surely this must be a good thing?

The problem is that no one has really asked whether or not this is a good thing, nor what it might mean for the various parts of the education sector.

Traditionally, Australia has made a distinction between vocational and higher education. The first is intended to provide measurable skills, the second to provide a broader more academic education.

Just what proportion of Australia's population might benefit from a broader academic education as compared to vocational education such as trades training? Can you maintain standards if you have to achieve a higher student target including people who might not really be suitable? And what does it mean for our vocational educational sector if the better students are all drained off to universities? Does it mean that universities now have to provide TAFE (Technical and Further Education) style training?

If the TAFE teachers I know are any guide, previous decisions to force unemployed young people into training has led to a gross deterioration in education conditions at TAFE colleges because of the growing number of students who are there because they have to be. I suspect that the problem is made worse by diversion of better students out of the TAFE system.

To meet the Government's new targets, Australia's universities have to find a way of creating an estimated 544,000 graduates in the 25 to 34 year old range cohort that will exist in in 2025, sixteen years from now. This means that we are talking about students who are 18 or less today. There is no point in putting people older this into universities, they won't help the Government meet its target.

To meet its target, the Australian Government will need to ramp up university numbers for those presently under 18 as the reach university age. That is from about two years out. Further, given that the average university course is now something over three years, the Government actually needs the extra numbers in place by, say, 2021, twelve years from now. So taking into account the first two year lag until the relevant age cohort reaches university for the first time, the Government needs an extra 54,000 graduates per annum over the period 2011 to 2021.

But wait, there is more. Assuming that the average time to graduation is four years, in practice a little bit less, the extra graduates won't start coming out until 2015. Now we have to find 544,000 extra graduates in the period 2015 to 2021.

To achieve this, the Government needs to add 54,000 students each intake starting in 2011. But wait, there is still more.

All Australian universities are worried by growing wastage rates. A significant proportion of students don;t finish their courses. I don't have numbers for this, but if the percentage is 20%, the Government needs to add 64,800 students per annum from the right age cohort from 2011.

I haven't had time to do proper research, but in 2007 Australian universities graduated some 103,000 students at bachelors level. Without bogging down in detailed statistics, this post is back of envelope stuff, 54,000 - 64,800 new students per annum is a high intake relative to this level of graduations.

Now we have another problem, and this is where the Financial Review story comes in. Most if not all of Australia's Vice Chancellors welcomed the new target. Now according to the FR's report, many are running for cover as they realise just what a poisoned chalice they have been offered.

The Gang of Eight, for example, the lobby group representing Australia's self-selected "elite" universities say not us. The growth should be absorbed by smaller universities or institutions with a teaching only mandate. They gang argues this case for reasonably self-evident competitive reasons linked to their perceived place in the now highly competitive academic universe.

I can understand their reasons. I have argued that my own university, the University of New England, should drop out of the big is better rat race and instead concentrate on its greatest strength, the fact that it still offers a university experience. This means, within certain parameters, focusing just on quality. Given its infrastructure, UNE could probably take another three thousand full time undergraduates and maintain culture and standards, but that is not a large number.

So, to summarise, I do not know if the Rudd Government's target can be achieved nor am I sure that it should be achieved.

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