Academic freedom as a principle and a practice (a review of Open Minds: Academic Freedom and Freedom of Speech in Australia)

Open Minds: Academic Freedom and Freedom of Speech in Australia is an accessible overview of the subjects in its sub-title. It covers rationales for academic freedom and freedom of speech, the current law, historical controversies, and emerging threats.

Its authors are two law academics, Carolyn Evans and Adrienne Stone, with Evans now a vice-chancellor. Jade Roberts, a legal researcher, assisted them.

As a general concept few people are against academic freedom. Nobody is calling for powerful figures – ministers, bureaucrats, or vice-chancellors for example – to direct the detail of what Australian academics research, teach or say. Yet the historical chapters of Open Minds report many cases through the decades raising issues of ‘academic freedom’. People regularly see exceptions to this otherwise widely-supported idea.

In judging disputed situations first principles can help. Yet these are also the subject of disagreement and grey areas. Academic freedom is not a clear and unchanging principle but instead a practice that has evolved over centuries, originally as institutional autonomy from church and state, with the current idea of academics personally having freedom developing from the late 19th century.

Only this year, after Open Minds was published, have the precise words ‘academic freedom’ with a definition been inserted into university funding legislation. Until then, as the Open Minds chapter on law explains, the language was of ‘free intellectual inquiry’, with universities and regulators left to decide what that meant. Even this terminology is recent, dating from 2011 in funding legislation and accreditation regulation, with ‘free inquiry’ used from 2000 in national legal definitions of a university. Australia has had universities since the 1850s.

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Has Job-ready Graduates increased the number of commencing students?

This morning the government released the first enrolment data of the Job-ready Graduates. The published data covers only 25 of the 40 full universities (including private universities). No information is available on which universities are in the 25, but based on previously published first-half-of-the-year enrolments I estimate that they enrol just over two-thirds of domestic students.

The government had previously published tertiary admission centre applications data, which based on previous years would represent just under two-thirds of all applications.

As each source has significant missing data any conclusions must be tentative. The chart below lines the two sources up by field of education. Each of demand and supply is up about 7 per cent, but there are significant differences between the two at the broad field of education level.

Apparent trends to date

Demand for IT, science and engineering is up, but supply is up by much more. It is possible that the idiosyncrasies of what is in each of the demand and supply datasets explains some of this discrepancy, but also that the national priority places and short courses allocations, which have a policy bias to these fields, are driving up supply more quickly than demand.

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University-Commonwealth funding agreements and the rule of law in higher education

The 2021-23 funding agreements between universities and the government, the first of the Job-ready Graduates era, were put on the DESE website earlier this year. In this post I compare them to the pre-JRG agreements.

My main concern is that the funding agreements are being used for matters that should be based on clear legal rules, not DESE discretion based on a one-sided ‘agreement’.

My concern reflects both the general political principle that policy decisions should be subject to parliamentary scrutiny and the practical problems caused by lack of certainty. Important funding conditions or criteria are not included in any legal document and DESE is given wide scope to interpret vague terms.

A broader scope

The most immediately obvious change is that the new funding agreements include more content than previously. They contain an overall summary of Higher Education Support Act 2003 institutional funding, including the Commonwealth Grant Scheme (CGS) funding that is the legal purpose of the funding agreements; rules around course closures, professional training, and the provision of information on costs and admissions; research, engagement and equity funding; and some background information and principles. The research, engagement and equity material is new and derives its legal standing from separate legislative instruments.

Putting key information in one place is helpful, and I would encourage the government to collate the summary funding tables combining teaching, research, equity and engagement funding for each university into a publication. But funding agreements with parts of varying legal status are not desirable. A mixed document makes it less clear for universities what they must do according to law and what is just the government/Department taking advantage of the sector’s culture of compliance. With such a large share of their income depending on their funding agreement, universities are reluctant to push back against the government’s demands.

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Should ‘first in family’ be an equity group?

Australian higher education equity policy and analysis tends towards cultural explanations of differences in higher education participation rates. The official definition of low socio-economic status is based on the ABS Index of Education and Occupation, not direct financial factors. Parental education and occupation provides a role model for their children and shapes the expectations parents have for their children. University-educated parents can also more easily help their children navigate the path to university.

The relationship between parental education and child outcomes has occasionally led to suggestions that ‘first in family’ – the children of parents who have not been to university – should be an official equity group. There was another such call in an article in The Conversation last week, based on a recent academic journal article by Sally Patfield, Jenny Gore, and Natasha Weaver.

Is first in family at university unusual?

Although the data is rarely released, parental education has been in the official enrolment data collection since 2010. In some figures I have from 2015, of the students who reported parental education first in family were just in the majority, at 50.1 per cent. But the true number was probably significantly higher, with don’t knows or missing data from about 15 per cent of enrolments. At minimum these students had parents who did not regale them with ‘when I was at uni’ anecdotes, blocking one path of influence on educational choices.

If we think back on the history of higher education first in family could never have been unusual. With each generation experiencing much higher participation rates than the one before it, large numbers of students must have had parents who didn’t go to university. According to figures in Anderson and Vervoon’s Access to Privilege, at Melbourne University in the 1960s and 1970s around a quarter of the fathers and 10 per cent of mothers of students had a university qualification – high for the era, but still leaving a big majority of students as ‘first in family’.

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Youth Allowance and course completion

The annual cohort completions statistics published by the Department of Education show that low SES students complete courses as lower rates than medium or high SES students. On the most recent figures 67 per cent of low SES commencing students had completed a degree by nine years after commencement. The equivalent figures were 72 per cent for medium SES students and 78 per cent for high SES students.

Youth Allowance and completion rates

In analysing the factors affecting completion, a Department of Education data integration project joins higher education enrolment variables with other government data, including income and student income support.

Their analysis suggests, as seen in the chart below, that receipt of Youth Allowance or Austudy is associated with increases in completion at the six-year point for students in all but the most advantaged areas, with the largest effects for students living in areas with the greatest levels of economic disadvantage.*

The analysis of the results is quite brief, making it hard to fully understand the effects of student income support. If I understand them correctly, they have controlled for full- or part-time study status. However, I would see getting students to study full-time as a major benefit of student income support. In the Grattan Institute dropping out analysis, studying part-time is the single biggest completion risk, and this is supported by the Department’s analysis, which includes additional variables Grattan did not have.

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Recurrent critiques, concerns and crises in Australian higher education

In a previous post on Gwil Croucher and James Waghorne’s Australian Universities: A History of Common Cause, I noted a range of significant changes in Australian higher education over the last century. This post looks at recurrent themes.

Debate about the purpose(s) of the university

From the start Australia’s universities served multiple purposes, with on-going tensions between knowledge for its own sake, typically most strongly supported by academics, and meeting practical needs, typically most strongly supported by governments.

At the 1920 meeting that Croucher and Waghorne mark as the start of a national organisation of universities, University of Sydney Chancellor Sir William Cullen warned against ‘adopting too enthusiastically the current preoccupation with ideas of “national efficiency”‘.

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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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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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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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