The Coalition government has not conceded the defeat of its higher education legislation, yet with two sitting weeks remaining in the year and a crossbench firmly opposed to its measures, it is virtually impossible that cuts to university funding and increases to student fees will pass the Senate.
Talk in higher education circles has shifted to other, non-legislative options the government may explore to achieve its desired $3 billion savings in higher education. Regrettably, the fear in the sector is that grant funding, which drives some of our most important research, may be at risk.
Further, the Higher Education and Participation Partnerships Program, which was found by a government review to support disadvantaged students effectively, is thought to be on the chopping block.
Perhaps of greatest concern is murmuring that the government may seek to impose a cap on undergraduate enrolments, which would mark the end of the demand-driven funding system.
This system, announced in 2009 and fully implemented in 2012, was designed to remove the rigid caps on undergraduate enrolments imposed by the central bureaucracy in Canberra.
Instead it would allow public universities to adjust their course offerings rapidly to meet the needs of an ever-changing workforce, creating a more competitive and responsive sector. Further, and most important, the system was to provide greater equity of access to students. These objectives have been achieved.
The uncapping of the system allowed universities to respond to unmet student demand. Enrolments increased but were not explosive, allowing Australia to catch up with OECD benchmarks for skilled labour.
At the same time, we saw the downward trend in unemployment. Many of the students who have found their way to university education came from low socio-economic backgrounds — young people who previously were precluded from the life-changing benefits access to higher education can bring.
Enrolments from indigenous students increased by 89 per cent since the system was expanded, regional enrolments are up 48 per cent and the target of 40 per cent of young people holding a degree has been achieved as a result of the demand-driven system.
The only significant weakness of the demand-driven system stemmed from the decision to impose arbitrary caps on sub-bachelor course enrolments as distinct from broader undergraduate degrees, depriving many students of valuable skills and pathways into bachelor level study.
Ironically, the government’s defeated bill recognised the importance of these qualifications, which better prepare students and assist with retention, and therefore provided for the extension of the demand-driven system to these degrees. To switch from planning to significantly expand a system to seeking its abolition overnight would be a harsh blow to students who have entered their preferences for next year.
Further, despite recent reporting, it is important to get the facts right on attrition. Despite the significant growth in enrolments by groups experiencing educational disadvantage following the expansion of the system, university attrition has remained static in the past decade.
The government’s Higher Education Standards Panel led by Peter Shergold has developed modified attrition data that takes into account the unique student cohorts of individual providers.
In simple terms, this modified data factors in disadvantaged cohorts such as mature age, regional and part-time students and their associated risk factors that are out of the control of universities. This data identifies and accounts for those providers serving more privileged cohorts, and adjusts attrition rates accordingly.
On this adjusted rating, which should be the only meaningful attrition metric considered, Swinburne is in line with the national average, even when including our large cohort of online learners. While we and other universities are constantly and successfully working to improve student retention, we are proud of the educational and employment access we give to diverse students.
Our commitment to creating social and economic impact through education remains our No 1 priority, as lifting the supply of skilled graduates to Australia’s economy is vital to our future success as a nation. This effort must not be curtailed under the guise of budget repair.
Although there were certain positive measures contained in its defeated legislation, the government must respect the parliament’s decision and not seek to claw back funds via the reimposition of a cap on undergraduate enrolments.
I have found Education Minister Simon Birmingham to be decent and conscientious, and I urge him to dissuade his cabinet colleagues and the Treasury from this course of action. Long gone are the days of universities serving only the privileged elite. Demand-driven funding creates a knowledge economy for all Australians and deserves protection.
This article was originally published in The Australian.