With the competiveness of Australian universities in the international market ravaged by recent changes to visa requirements and the high value of the A$, the choices facing Knight and the government were stark, given that international revenue is critical to the financial sustainability of the sector. As Knight summed them up, without the prop of international revenue, universities would have to either reduce their level of research or reduce their level of services to Australian students, most likely both. The only way to avoid such reductions would be for Australian taxpayers to “makeup the shortfall”.
Chinese education agents reacted positively, saying the changes would help limit the damage in the face of fierce competition from North America.
There are, nevertheless, voices of dissonance. The TAFE sector – the publicly owned part of the VET system – feels much put upon by its exclusion from streamlining arrangements. TAFE Directors Australia describes it as a “disappointingly one-sided report favouring universities”, with TDA’s Peter Holden arguing that the nine factorsused by Knight to justify special treatment for universities equally apply to all TAFE institutes. But Knight is unapologetic about this preferential treatment of universities. Regrettably, he says, the most likely places for systemic rorts [such as the cookery and hairdressing route to skilled migration] continue to be in the VET sector. While the majority of providers in VET may well be straight up, with 533 registered providers offering VET courses to international students in 2010 it is, he says, far too risky to extend the benefits beyond the current arrangements. Nevertheless TAFE will benefit from the reduction in financial requirements for prospective students, the opportunity for TAFE institutes to package courses with universities to achieve a lower assessment level for students and the removal of the English language threshold requirement.
Peter van Onselen writes that while the changes contained in the Knight review are generally a positive – for universities needing money and a nation needing population growth –they must happen in the context of a wider sharpening up of quality among graduates. Just as the decision to enact the recommendations of the Knight review has been driven by funding needs, so too has the informal approach of soft marking, which has afflicted many university courses like a plague.
Bob Birrell warns that the removal of the financial requirement for universities is “significant and troubling”. This going to lead to a very significant influx of people, who don’t have the financial means to support themselves, seeking via university education, access to the Australian labour market.