The Australian | 2 July 2013
The Rudd government could walk away from a key education target to increase university participation, with incoming Higher Education Minister Kim Carr saying rapid growth in enrolments over the past three years has potentially compromised the quality of degrees on offer.
Carr indicated the government is prepared to dump its quest to have 40% of young people with at least a bachelor’s degree by 2025. The move would stem budgetary pressures to fund hundreds of thousands of new places by putting caps back on how many students universities could enrol.
In 2011, the government subsidised 488,000 places. By last year, the figure had grown to 545,000 and is expected to reach 613,000 places in 2015, with the cost expected to rise from $3.5bn in 2007 to about $7bn by 2015.
Universities have been ramping up pressure on government to review the demand-driven system since being hit with $3.8 billion in cuts since October 2012.
Carr’s comments were made in the context of him agreeing to consider $2.3 billion in cuts to the sector following intense lobbying by universities.
Carr – the fourth higher education minister in four months – said that while there has been “tremendous growth” in enrolments, he is concerned about maintaining standards.
Given the strength of growth in demand, it is appropriate to (think about) quality and excellence. We need to consider refocusing government investment to get the best possible use of public money.
Mike Gallagher, executive director of the elite Group of Eight universities, says it is
…refreshing to see the new minister prepared to bring some discipline to demand-driven funding, given the blowout in costs and risks to quality. The new minister is wise to revisit the balance of priorities between equity and excellence.
Peter Coaldrake, vice-chancellor of Queensland University of Technology, says that while the 40 % target is good public policy and aligned with aspirations for a better educated workforce for the growth in highly skilled jobs in the knowledge economy of the future but the achievement of that target should not be at the cost of quality.
Jeannie Rea, president of the National Tertiary Education Union, said while she supported the uncapping of places as a way of opening access to underprivileged students, early concerns that quality could be compromised had “unfortunately been realistic”.