Denise Bradley, 1942-2020

Denise Bradley, one of the big influences on Australian higher education over the last 40 years, has passed away after a long illness.

She was a university leader, including as vice-chancellor of the University of South Australia from 1997 to 2007. Prior to that she was an important figure in forming the University during the Dawkins era of amalgamations, principally from the previous South Australian Institute of Technology and South Australian College of Advanced Education. For a brief statement of her University of South Australia role see the citation for her honorary doctorate from the University, and in more detail this history of the University in the Dawkins period.

Through this time she was active in broader public policy. She served on the Commonwealth Tertiary Education Commission in the 1980s, a body which used to advise the government on funding and other things. There was depth and detail in that era that we have lost – CTEC used to regularly produce hundreds of pages of detailed analysis. After CTEC was abolished, she served on other government advisory councils, boards and committees.

Professor Bradley was best known in more recent times for chairing the Julia Gillard-commissioned Review of Australian Higher Education, better known as the Bradley review leading in 2008 to the Bradley report.

One of the main recommendations of the Bradley report was the introduction of demand driven funding for higher education. Instead of the previous block grant system, in which universities were allocated a near-fixed sum of money with a target number of student places, they would be funded for the number of student places that they delivered.

Julia Gillard accepted most of the Bradley review’s recommendations, and demand driven funding became one of the big turning points in post-WW2 Australian higher education history.

Demand driven funding substantially increased student numbers and participation rates, led to significant shifts in enrolment shares between institutions, and facilitated rapid enrolment increases in some disciplines.

This expansion wasn’t without problems. I discuss some of the system’s strengths and weaknesses in this report released yesterday. But compared to the counter-factual of a continuing block grant system I am confident that demand driven funding was, and remains, the better option.

There has always been controversy around demand driven funding, but the content of this has shifted in ways that obscure the policy and political achievement of the Bradley review, and Julia Gillard in taking key recommendations through the policy process.

The idea of taking controls off student numbers was not new. Versions of it had circulated in the Liberal Party from the 1980s, and it went unsuccessfully to a Liberal Cabinet in 1999. As part of a broader pro-market policy agenda demand driven funding (or ‘vouchers’)  was associated with deregulating fees as well as places, triggering wide opposition.

The Bradley review made demand driven funding politically acceptable by firmly breaking the link with deregulated fees, and giving it a strong equity focus. This was not just by expanding the number of student places, but also through reforming student income support and increasing access and equity funding to universities.

Concerns about quality during an expansionary phase led to a proposal for an ‘independent national regulatory body’ – what became TEQSA – and performance funding, which was in place for a while before being abolished for financial reasons.

By the time David Kemp and I did a review of the demand driven system in 2014 the vast majority of higher education stakeholders were in favour of keeping it. And while there were more opponents in 2017 than 2014, my recent report argues that most of the key players – the minister, the shadow minister, all the interest groups except the Group of Eight – were still in favour. Errors of political judgment, rather than policy failure, led to the end of demand driven funding in December 2017.

Whether or not demand driven funding eventually returns, Denise Bradley was an important figure in creating higher education opportunities for many people who would not otherwise have had them. For someone whose career had consistently focused on expanding higher education access that is a great legacy.

2 thoughts on “Denise Bradley, 1942-2020

  1. Denise was a true great of the higher education system. Her contributions listed by Andrew are accurate but understate her overall achievements and influence. It was an honour to have worked directly for her in my time at UniSA as Deputy Vice Chancellor and I remain indebted to her guidance and encouragement. I will be among many that will miss her.

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