Success of HE reforms rely on increased government funding

On the day the Accord interim report was released, I was in the Gold Coast taking part in a series of discussions on measuring university impact. This is a topical issue which is occupying much attention among strategic planners, research managers, and those focused on institutional performance measurement. During my run earlier in the morning, I wondered how Griffith University’s Gold Coast campus and surrounding areas would have been twenty years ago. Surely Southport was very different then.

Thirty-five years ago, I was one of the 420,850 students enrolled in higher education (HE) when the Dawkins white paper was released. The following year I began my specialist career in HE as a planning research assistant at Footscray Institute of Technology (now Victoria University).

The release of the Dawkins white paper was the beginning of new growth and opportunity for Australian HE. It gave prominence to the role of data analysts in figuring out institutional size and shape during discussions on amalgamations. The implementation of these policies led to several mergers of institutions – from 19 universities and 73 other HE institutions in 1987 to 38 in 1991.

It has been a privilege to work in HE and witness how the various policy reviews and structural reforms in the wider society have continued to transform Australian HE. There are now more than 1.6 million enrolments across universities and other providers. Australia stands tall in the global stage despite the economic uncertainty we have experienced over the past five years.

The review led by Professor Mary O’Kane will transform Australian HE even further since the Dawkins reforms. These days, there is not the same sense of growth and opportunity compared to the 1980s. The degree to which Australian HE will be transformed is also dependent on the extent of further economic reforms which have been focused on fiscal sustainability, tax policy, monetary policy and government spending policy. However, in recent years, governments’ appetite for change has lessened due to political difficulties and the improbability of getting support from interest groups.

Let me offer some brief observations on selected themes which may inform us of the kinds of choices we will be confronted with in the years to come.

Doubling enrolment by 2050

I am not so confident that we will be able to achieve the doubling of overall student enrolments by 2050 if there are not higher levels of investment by government in HE, along with an increased number of institutions with clear distinctiveness.

In 2020, I published an analysis (using 2018 ABS population projections) in which I estimated the growth in the domestic HE student population to 2030. This projected growth was enough to have another large university (with 80,000 enrolments). The latest Intergenerational Report estimates Australia’s population to grow at an average of 1.1 per cent a year, compared to 1.4 per cent over the past 40 years.

With an increased ageing population, declining birth rates, the impact of climate change on every aspect of economic activity, and government facing deficits in future years, we can expect limiting funding to support growth aspirations.

Although the number of Year 12 students went from 205,434 in 2006 to 234,757 in 2022 (an increase of almost 30,000), we can expect limited growth of the school leaver population enrolling in HE over the next decade.

Even though there is an expectation that more jobs will require people with HE qualifications, many people (regardless of age) are not prioritizing further study right now. Let’s hope our institutions experience an increase in student demand in the coming years.

As a country, we will continue to rely on the influx of international students to continue funding our growth and to achieve some of the government policy objectives. Two years ago, when the previous government released its new international education strategy, I noted that policymakers and university leaders are yet to articulate what the desirable level of growth is for achieving an improved interaction between domestic and international students.

Universal learning entitlement

At first read I liked the idea of the universal learning entitlement (ULE). But having now read the full interim report, I feel ULE will ultimately lead to students paying a higher share of the cost for their education.

Over the years, we have seen how the Higher Education Contribution Scheme (HECS) and its replacement, the Higher Education Loan Program, have changed. When HECS was first introduced in 1989, students paid $1800 (about $4281 in 2022) per year. A student enrolled in Accounting in 2023 is expected to contribute $15,142 per year and the government pays $1,147. It means this student is contributing with 93 per cent of funding for a place.

Over the long term, it appears that student cohorts that will receive guaranteed government funding for higher education are those that belong to one of the designated equity groups. For most students, they will be expected to contribute even more than in current practice. This is the reality that we are confronted with given the lack of appetite to address government narrowing tax base.

Making student equity a priority

It is commendable that the report advocates for parity in performance between students from disadvantaged backgrounds and the overall domestic student population. Achieving this ambition will depend on strengthening support to students, including financial assistance for living and study expenses.

Whilst it is important to recognize differences across states, population decline in rural areas, and institutions, I urge caution in setting up targets at a disaggregated level that we end up losing track of what the long-term goal is. Often enough, short-term step change initiatives do not produce long lasting impact.

Australia’s second national university

 It is hard to get motivated for the creation of a second national university. We already have several regional universities which have a clear distinctive focus on the jurisdictions where they serve and operate. I urge policymakers to increase the financial support to these universities so they can strengthen their offerings and areas of specialisation and support those who need it.

Regional and outer suburban hubs

There is no doubt that location affects opportunities to access HE; therefore, supporting the expansion of those hubs makes sense for reducing geographical barriers for student access, success, and attainment. At the same time, it makes more sense to me that universities establish hubs in the regions and outer suburban areas rather than every university having a presence in the central business district of every major capital city.

I wonder whether there will be any restrictions for universities to establish regional or outer suburban hubs anywhere in Australian states and territories.

Recognition of prior learning

One of the policy failures from the Dawkins reforms is that there is not a nationally agreed transfer mechanism for prior learning. Therefore, it is a positive development that the Interim report recognizes this as an imperative. It is currently extremely difficult for any domestic student to transfer from one institution to another and have an easy way to have recognition of prior studies and credit transfer.

Over the years we have made it easier to recognize prior learning and recognition of qualifications from abroad than what it is for a student to transfer between institutions five kilometers apart. Harmonizing Australian universities’ processes to achieve this goal is likely to result in a decrease in institutional wastage, including a reduction in the rate of student failure and therefore an enhancement of the student experience and graduate outcomes.

Bipartisan support

The final consideration for change in the interim report calls for bipartisan support to deliver on the policy reforms which will form part of the Accord. A bipartisan and multipartisan support will go a long way to strengthen Australian universities standing.

Long term planning

As someone who has spent decades in planning roles in HE, I urge our leaders to support the need to provide funding certainty to universities, particularly beyond the electoral cycle. As a minimum, a 5-year funding certainty will considerably help our universities to plan, deliver, and assure the highest quality of what they set to achieve in line with government policy and institutional mission.

It is also important to ensure that the Australian Department of Education releases the annual datasets of statistical information in a timely manner. Ideally, the national statistics would be released within 90 days from the date institutions submit their statistical information.

Later, I will focus on other themes (e.g., research funding, shared service model for support functions, et al).

Angel Calderon is Director of Strategic Insights at RMIT University.



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