Gearing Up: Australia's Demand-Driven Reforms Still Have Miles to Go

Times Higher Education, May 1, 2014 | Go to article overview

Gearing Up: Australia's Demand-Driven Reforms Still Have Miles to Go


David Kemp and Andrew Norton call for state subsidies for all institutions, public and private, and pre-bachelor's courses

A few years ago, Australia boldly went where England is now planning to go, and removed most controls on university student numbers. It was a logical step given that most of the country's population is now expected to continue their education after completing school. But as with any major reform, it is important to get the details right.

Late last year a new education minister, Christopher Pyne, appointed us to see how this demand-driven system was going and to make suggestions for improvements. We found it was meeting its key aims of increasing participation in higher education, especially for students from disadvantaged backgrounds, and responding to skills needs in the economy.

But in a few respects, the demand-driven system departed from the original vision of a fully open system. Diploma and sub-bachelor's courses remained centrally allocated by the national government, whereas public universities could accept as many students on to bachelor's degree programmes as they could recruit. Private colleges, along with state government-run vocational education providers, were excluded from the demand-driven system.

Together, these omissions limit the success of a mass higher education system.

In Australia, secondary school students are ranked in their age cohort according to their level of academic achievement. There is a clear relationship between these ranks and the time students take to complete a bachelor's degree. Only half of lower-ranked students entering bachelor's degree study complete their degrees within six years, compared with nearly 90 per cent of the most academically able students.

We found, however, that weaker school leavers could improve their academic performance by first taking a diploma course, often in a specialised "pathway college". These colleges (most of which are private) focus on building students' academic skills to the level needed for independent study on a bachelor's-level course at a university.

Australia's pathway colleges are a good example of how an open higher education system can innovate. They were established to help international students, whose numbers grew dramatically in Australia in the 1990s, but in recent years such colleges have increasingly been used by home students, too.

Unfortunately, the demand-driven system as it stands creates a financial incentive for students to proceed straight to a bachelor's degree at a public university, a high-risk option for weaker students. Government tuition subsidies mean public universities often charge just half as much per year as private colleges.

So in our report, Review of the Demand Driven Funding System, we recommend opening up the system to private colleges and the state government-run vocational education providers. …

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