Like an unlatched dunny door on a windy night, Greg Craven (vice-chancellor of Australian Catholic University) can bang on with his metaphors and similes, but he’s always lively and has a point. In this opinion piece published in The Australian, Craven’s point is that the uncapped demand driven funding system has opened up a new world of life opportunity for whole groups of people who previously haven’t had easy access to higher education. Does “easy access” debase “quality”? Doesn’t have to at all, argues Craven. Two points. One ACU has been a major beneficiary of the uncapped system, more or less doubling in size since 2009. Second, if you read the comments attributed to Kim Carr, he said exactly that quality is an issue in the uncapped system.
Sympathy is not an emotion often extended to scorpions, stonefish and politicians. But you had to sympathise with Higher Education Minister Kim Carr last week.
Taking up his portfolio, he made the mild observation that you had to watch both participation and quality in universities and ensure public money was well-spent. Suddenly, it was as if he’d entered a lion pit wearing Lady Gaga’s sirloin sari. Gleeful academic lobbyists announced the end of Labor’s demand-driven student system. This was the biggest policy reversal since God fell out with Gomorrah.
Carr’s problem was that he had come within spitting distance of the “university quality” debate. There are pointless debates, bankrupt debates and poisonous debates. Then there is this brouhaha. Like all good stoushes, this one is self-interest dressed up in the fine feathers of principle.
Basically, fan clubs of old, rich universities conduct weep-fests to bemoan the falling quality of university students. Not theirs, you understand: those going to other universities under the bipartisan 40% participation targets.
It is an endearing eccentricity of the “university quality” debate that it is about the quality of the students, not the universities. In fact, it’s about money.
In the good old days, when people from Parramatta knew they were destined to dig roads, there were a small number of universities teaching a small number of well-heeled students. They got a good deal of money, with relatively little direction on how to spend it. Then there were more universities, teaching a much bigger range of students, so less money to go round. And more and more directions from Canberra on how it should be spent.
But the demand-driven system introduced in 2011 is the blowfly in the port. It did two unacceptable things. By funding thousands of extra students to study at university, it effectively directed new money not to old, privileged institutions, but to universities prepared to deliver that opportunity. Worse, it established the principle that Canberra would demand educational productivity in return for extra cash. Worst of all, there is a sneaking suspicion these newer bounder universities may deliver a highly acceptable graduate at a much lower cost than their aristocratic rivals. Shhhh.
So, demand-driven is a threat to be crushed at the first opportunity, and just because Carr said nothing of the sort is no reason to take him at his word. The usual libels were dusted off, from the alleged hordes with Australian Tertiary Admission Ranks of less than 50 now entering universities – in fact, 96 per cent of entrants have ATARs higher than 50 – to antediluvian references to “suburban” and “provincial” universities. How dreadful to educate suburbanites and provincials, presumably in places such as Macquarie (one of Australia’s top eight universities, though sadly located in Ryde, NSW) and James Cook (a world leader in tropical research, but, oh, Algernon, the heat!).
The reality, of course, is that the 40% participation target pursues goals far more important than public relations statistics and Edwardian vapours, which is why both parties have supported it.
Critically, given this figure is the OECD benchmark and is being attained or pursued by our global competitors, how is Australia to match workforces if our own is comparatively under-educated, under-trained and under the pump? As we know to our pain, we are never going to be competitive in terms of workforce by virtue of size or cost. Large-scale manufacturing is beyond us. Our only chance, as Andrew Robb is fond of remarking, is to play to our strengths with a workforce that is smarter, better-educated and more competitive.
Unless there is something about Australians that means our youth are dumber than in other nations aiming for the target. In which case we may as well huddle in the quadrangle of the University of Sydney and wait for the end.
Mind you, there is a delicious sense of deja vu in this debate. Much of the demand-driven system is about bringing opportunity to the disadvantaged.
Historically, there always has been dowager-driven horror over educational incursions by the lower classes.
Teaching workers to read would promote revolution. Girls, as wives, needed only basic literacy. The 12, 14 and 16-year-old school-leaving ages progressively were mere extravagances for the “average” student.
Pity that snobbery does not contribute to national productivity.