What’s changed in a century of Australian higher education?

Gwil Croucher and James Waghorne’s Australian Universities: A History of Common Cause is an easy-to-read history of Australian higher education, told with attention to the history of university peak bodies. Universities Australia commissioned the book to mark the centenary of the regular meetings of university leaders that began in 1920.

The Australian university system in 2020 is in many ways very different from what it was in 1920. But despite the transformations some issues recur repeatedly over the decades, which I will discuss further in a later blog post. I will start with what has changed the most, prompted by the Croucher and Waghorne book, but adding other material and my own take on events.

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A farewell to arts?

I am on a panel discussion this evening called ‘A Farewell to Arts? On the Morrison Government’s University Legislation’. I will do my preparation in public via this blog post, working through the event questions.

Why does the Morrison Government want to dissuade students from enrolling in an Arts degree? [A reference to more than doubled student contributions.]

As the policy name ‘Job-ready Graduates’ suggests, the main stated reason for changes to student contributions is to promote graduate employment outcomes. Or as the JRG discussion paper puts it ‘incentives in the current funding system could encourage sub-optimal choices for students and institutions, leading to poorer labour market outcomes and returns on investment in higher education.’ The assumption is that if arts becomes more expensive students will instead choose a course with lower student contributions and better employment prospects.

Employment outcomes can be measured in many ways, but every method shows that graduates in fields typically taught in Arts faculties are at an elevated risk of disappointing outcomes.

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The social and political causes of increasing educational participation from the 1980s

In my previous blog post, a discussion of Australian educational trends inspired by Peter Mandler’s post-WW2 history of education in Britain, I finished in the 1970s, a rare period of decline in school completion and university participation rates.

School completion increases again

Whatever the reasons for 1970s educational trends, in the 1980s rates of school completion rapidly increased, as the chart below shows. According to Simon Marginson’s book Educating Australia, increasing the proportion of students completing Year 12 was a deliberate policy goal, supported by state governments and the Commonwealth.

With these older teenagers, in the 1980s compulsion was not a politically acceptable policy tool for increasing school retention. As recently as 2007 in Victoria and 2009 in NSW the school leaving age was still only fifteen. Incentives were needed. According to Marginson, the Commonwealth significantly extended income support for secondary school students, with recipient numbers increasing six-fold between 1982 and 1990.

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The rise and then slight fall of school completion and university participation rates in Australia and Britain, 1870s to 1970s

A recent reading highlight for me is Peter Mandler’s The Crisis of the Meritocracy: Britain’s Transition to Mass Higher Education since the Second World War. I reviewed it on the GoodReads site.

Despite its title, Mandler’s book does not neatly belong to either educational merit genre; it neither bemoans the excessive influence of academic ability in allocating social and economic goods, nor laments the decline of academic standards in schools and universities. Instead, its core theme is how changing attitudes, aspirations and expectations drove up British educational participation and attainment after WW2. There are many interesting parallels with Australia.

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How will performance funding work under Job-ready Graduates? (I don’t know, but here are some possibilities)

How performance funding will work under Job-ready Graduates remains unclear, to me at least. Some recently published FAQs on Job-ready Graduates, which are a cut-and-paste from a previous statement, indicate that performance funding will continue:

From 2021, the PBF scheme will be adjusted to make approximately $80 million amount of growth funding per year contingent on performance requirements. Performance funding will grow each year to a total equivalent to 7.5 per cent of funding for domestic, non‑medical bachelor places to incentivise university performance. This measure is in line with the PBF model implemented in 2020. [emphasis added]

Is performance funding a condition of other announced CGS increases?

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The complexities of new student places (again)

Tuesday’s Budget announced two lots of funding for new student places, for short courses and for ‘national priority’ courses. But in the complex Job-ready Graduates funding system it is hard to work out what will really happen. As with other policies that are intended to create new places, it is not clear that there is a financial incentive to increase enrolments.

The difficulties of introducing new money into a transitioning system

Between them, the two new allocations total about $550 million over the next four years, with the short course money lasting for two years.

The question is how this relates to the Job-ready Graduates transition fund. This fund is designed to leave universities with the same Commonwealth student-related funding for the next three years as if JRG had never happened.

The draft Commonwealth Grant Scheme Guidelines released at the end of last month set out how the transition fund will work. The Guidelines have several unclear and seemingly contradictory elements, which I discuss in a footnote.* But this is the basic formula for transition funding:

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Can universities just close loss-making courses?

As international student fee revenues fall universities are closing loss-making subjects and courses. Musicology at Monash. Maths and gender studies at Macquarie. Arts and social science subjects at Sydney. Neuropsychology at La Trobe.

Generally, universities have significant autonomy over what they teach. Changes in courses and subjects occur every year, in good as well as bad economic times.

But the funding agreements universities sign with the government impose some controls over course closures.

For courses leading to occupations deemed to be experiencing a skills shortage, and subjects teaching ‘nationally strategic’ languages, universities have to get government approval prior to closure.

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What are the academic freedom laws that Pauline Hanson wants?

As a condition of her vote for the Job-ready Graduates bill, One Nation Senator Pauline Hanson wants to add a new academic freedom provision to higher education legislation. According to yesterday’s media reports, the amendment would be in line with the wording recommended by the French review of freedom of speech in Australian higher education providers.

This change was already on the political agenda in early 2020, with consultations on the draft amendments. However, COVID-19 and perhaps Job-ready Graduates intervened and little has been heard of the issue recently, other than ex-Deakin VC Sally Walker being asked to look into implementation of the model code on university free speech proposed by Robert French.

I put in a submission to the legislation consultation, which recommended various amendments to the draft provisions, along with strengthening academic freedom to ensure that it was protected from government decisions.

This post is a slightly modified extract from the submission that explains the proposed amendments, with the aim of informing discussion if the Hanson amendment is introduced.

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The Job-ready Graduates student places debate

Update 30/9: The minister has announced $326 million over an unspecified period, but starting in 2021, for additional student places. This would have a a significant effect on the calculations below. I will update again when I have more detail.

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One of the many disputed points in the Job-ready Graduates Senate inquiry was over the number of student places it would create. The Department of Education’s answers to questions on notice provided new detail, including annual estimates, shown in the chart below.

Over the longer-run, there are multiple mechanisms in JRG that could require or encourage universities to deliver more student places than now. However, the Department does not explain how it arrived at most of its numbers. They do explain the assumptions behind their 2021 forecast. For the reasons given below, I doubt that these justify a claim of additional places compared to status quo policies remaining in place.

Funding envelope

Of the 15,000 additional funded places, 7,000 are said to come from ‘increased flexibility for universities within the funding envelope’. This refers to ending three separate Commonwealth Grant Scheme grants for sub-bachelor, bachelor and postgraduate coursework places. Instead, universities would have a single ‘funding envelope’, within which they could freely move resources between qualification levels.

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Can enabling courses survive?

Enabling courses are niche product of the Australian higher education system. Although quite diverse, they aim to improve academic preparedness for higher education study. Enabling courses often target general academic problems, but also discipline-specific gaps.

Public universities can offer enabling courses on a full-fee basis with a FEE-HELP loan, but most enabling students are in Commonwealth supported places they get for free. In 2018, universities had nearly 22,000 CSP enrolments, who used just under 12,000 EFTSL (most enabling courses are short).

CSP enabling places are funded from a mix of the normal discipline-based Commonwealth contribution and an ‘enabling loading’ in lieu of a student contribution. Both funding sources come from the Commonwealth Grant Scheme.

From 2011 to 2019, enabling places came from an allocation for sub-bachelor places, but with an implied enabling allocation, the set number of places that received the loading. The ‘fully-funded’ loading was about $3,400 per student place in 2018, but due to over-enrolments – students above the allocated number – it averaged about $2,700. This compares to a weighted average student contribution of $8,100 if these had been charged.

The government moves against enabling courses

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