Sections

Services

Information

UK United Kingdom

A Vice-Chancellor’s defence of the uncapped university system

As the new government settles in, there has been heated speculation around major changes to the higher education system. Education minister Christopher Pyne’s comments to the media have raised questions…

The head of Newcastle University explains why we need to keep our universities open. University image from www.shutterstock.com

As the new government settles in, there has been heated speculation around major changes to the higher education system. Education minister Christopher Pyne’s comments to the media have raised questions across the sector about the Coalition’s vision for universities in Australia.

Universities will certainly welcome Pyne’s focus on building a more competitive international education market and reducing our regulatory burden. Government support for a concept of “earned autonomy” and an understanding that universities are prepared to be accountable for the quality of their programs and graduates would also be well-received.

However, of concern is the implication in Pyne’s statements that the demand-driven system of student funding, which has seen 190,000 more students enter our universities, is associated with a drop in quality.

As the University of Newcastle’s Vice-Chancellor I know from experience that widening access to a greater number of students has not meant compromising on quality. The percentage of students from low socio-economic (SES) backgrounds enrolled at Newcastle is 26.3%, well above the national average of 16% - but our student retention rate is above 80%. Similarly, there is only a 0.3% difference in success rates between low SES students and those from other backgrounds – indicating that widening access has done nothing to diminish student success.

It is also worth noting that our student satisfaction scores with teaching, as measured by the Good Teaching Scale of the Australian Graduate Survey, have improved by 11% since 2011 – another signal that increasing participation and a high-quality student experience are not mutually exclusive.

What the Minister’s initial comments have prompted is the need to establish a shared understanding of what defines a quality university system - a system which can face the productivity and innovation challenges that Australia will face in this next decade.

According to the Australian Workforce Productivity Agency, our prosperity in this Asian century will require a highly educated workforce to support innovative industries and businesses. We will need to address the projected deficit of up to 280,000 qualified people by 2025. This would not be the time to restrict the opportunity for bright and able Australians to benefit from a university education.

Supporting excellence in teaching and research, wherever it may be found, will enable Australia to leverage its position as one of Asia’s strong knowledge and innovation hubs. Building a strong university system based on quality and excellence, rather than concentrating support in a limited number of universities, will build resilience as we compete and collaborate in equal measure with our Asian university counterparts.

The new government is now the steward of a diverse and successful university sector that is relatively young in world terms. In 2012, an independent audit of national research excellence - the Excellence in Research for Australia assessment - found that more than half of Australian research at or above world standard was being conducted in non-sandstone universities like our own.

A definition of a quality university would be one that is prepared to test its standards against the world’s best and helps students from all backgrounds to reach them. In this context, we look forward to working with the new minister as he consults with those institutions, like our own, working in regions where there is a relatively low rate of higher education participation. Universities in regions play a key role in building the productivity and skills to meet the challenges of Australia’s economic transition.

In times of financial constraint, it is tempting to rely on seemingly simple proxy measures for quality, such as the entry scores of university students or indeed the age of a university. Let’s move beyond these and establish a shared definition of a quality university system which ensures that education, research and innovation in Australia is future-proofed.

Australia faces a future dependent on skills, productivity and innovation as well as some tough financial challenges. We can be open about the difficulties of funding a sustainable university sector - but what we can’t do is rely on narrow definitions of quality – at either the institutional or system level – to resolve short-term financial challenges.

To do so would risk a greater cost – our future prosperity.

Join the conversation

26 Comments sorted by

  1. Michael Sheehan

    Geographer at Analyst

    Isn't this a bit similar to getting a turkey to write an op-ed opposing Christmas?

    report
    1. Michael Sheehan

      Geographer at Analyst

      In reply to Gavin Moodie

      Indeed. But how many of them are turkeys?

      report
    2. Michael Sheehan

      Geographer at Analyst

      In reply to Gavin Moodie

      That is hardly surprising. There is a world of difference between the UNSW and the moral hazard issues underpinning support for the demand-driven system.

      report
    3. Michael Sheehan

      Geographer at Analyst

      In reply to Gavin Moodie

      While the Dawkins universities admit academically unable/not-ready students, UNSW admits gazillions of Asian foreign students on full fees, whom no lecturer would ever dare to fail..

      report
    4. Michael Sheehan

      Geographer at Analyst

      In reply to Gavin Moodie

      I would be very interested to see how they concocted that figure. Anybody who has ever worked at UNSW, or knows people who do, knows full well what goes on wrt foreign full-fee pay students.

      report
    5. Gavin Moodie
      Gavin Moodie is a Friend of The Conversation.

      Adjunct professor at RMIT University

      In reply to Michael Sheehan

      The progress rate that I cited is calculated by taking the student load passed in a year as a ratio of the load enrolled at the year's census date. UNSW's data seem internally consistent and consistent with relevant external reference points. For example, the progress rate of the University of Sydney' international commencing bachelor students in 2012 was 88.67%, very close to UNSW's 89%.

      Perhaps this is yet another instance of folk 'knowledge' being wrong.

      report
    6. Michael Sheehan

      Geographer at Analyst

      In reply to Gavin Moodie

      Hmmmm...maybe. While I definitely know lots of examples of folk knowledge being wrong, I personally have too many data points that I know for certain are true. OTOH, maybe the sources of those data points are biased in choosing to talk about admin pressures to indulge/pass foreign full-fee students, when in fact, they are subject to equal admin pressures regarding domestic students as well? Or something similar. Or maybe a much higher % of those failed foreign students were failed for never turning up, or submitting assignments, or sitting exams.

      report
    7. Gil Hardwick

      anthropologist, historian, novelist, editor and publisher at eBooks West

      In reply to Michael Sheehan

      While I concede your point on the proliferation of "Dawkins universities", Michael, your statement on lecturers not daring to fail fee-paying Asian students is simply incorrect.

      Asian students work very very hard, long setting the pace for the Australians, for whom failure is a enormous loss of face. Their obligation to their families who pay their bills is deeply felt, and it is that which motivates them regardless of their many lecturers' inclinations, or indeed whatever capping policy may be…

      Read more
    8. Gil Hardwick

      anthropologist, historian, novelist, editor and publisher at eBooks West

      In reply to Gavin Moodie

      This difference of 2-3% between local and overseas students is quite as easily explained by culture shock, being away from home, being targeted selectively by campus prowlers, simply living in a strange city, or any number of extra pressures experienced by students studying in a foreign country.

      Yes? Is that a fair comment? To overseas students, it is Australia which is the foreign country, the other culture and language and society which I have to admit at times does not make a lot of sense to…

      Read more
    9. Michael Sheehan

      Geographer at Analyst

      In reply to Gil Hardwick

      Gil, while that picture definitely reflects a lot of what goes on, the point usually made about the full-fee foreign students, and the reason I raised it in response to Gavin's mentioning UNSW, is that the 'quality' of the foreign students is much lower than the domestic students. That is how UNSW can 'afford' to be against demand-driven funding. Yes, UNSW can proudly say 'we accept nobody with an ATAR less than 80.0'. But they make up for it with 'low quality' foreign full-fee paying students; a…

      Read more
    10. Gil Hardwick

      anthropologist, historian, novelist, editor and publisher at eBooks West

      In reply to Michael Sheehan

      Point usually made by whom, Michael, on what basis?

      I have no way of knowing either what period you refer to.

      Currently, and based on long experience now at UWA which is ranked lower than UNSW, I do not find overseas students of lower quality than domestic students. To suggest further that students with no English language at all, in IELTS bands 2-3 at best, are able to even gain a place at UNSW or UWA or any such university is simply preposterous.

      To suggest that "foreigners" are getting…

      Read more
    11. Michael Sheehan

      Geographer at Analyst

      In reply to Gil Hardwick

      Toodle-oo, Gil. But as you know nothing about UNSW - a university where exams are not even used in disciplines you are coming from - and express a very naive (or disingenuous) view of group-work in Australian universities, your input won't be missed.

      report
  2. Michael Sheehan

    Geographer at Analyst

    "As the University of Newcastle’s Vice-Chancellor I know from experience that widening access to a greater number of students has not meant compromising on quality."
    If so, your case would be strengthened if you provided some actual evidence to justify this claim. None provided here, despite writing 1,000 words.

    report
  3. John Crest

    logged in via email @live.com.au

    "As the University of Newcastle’s Vice-Chancellor I know from experience that widening access to a greater number of students has not meant compromising on quality."

    Evidence rather than experience would be nice.

    "The percentage of students from low socio-economic (SES) backgrounds enrolled at Newcastle is 26.3%, well above the national average of 16% – but our student retention rate is above 80%."

    And this is related to quality how? A higher retention rate may indicate a lowering of quality.

    report
  4. Gil Hardwick

    anthropologist, historian, novelist, editor and publisher at eBooks West

    Caroline, I agree with you entirely. Your argument that the issue is not merely about intake but quality assurance, completion rates, and student satisfaction is well worth noting.

    My view overall follows comments made by Murdoch's Geoffrey Bolton quite some time ago on the desirability for Australian education to follow not the English elitist model but the Scottish, in which education is viewed not as a privilege but as basic a human right as adequate diet, proper health care, housing, and loving…

    Read more
    1. Michael Sheehan

      Geographer at Analyst

      In reply to Gil Hardwick

      Gil, Australian universities have NEVER followed the Oxbridge model. That was rejected in about the 1840s.

      report
    2. Gil Hardwick

      anthropologist, historian, novelist, editor and publisher at eBooks West

      In reply to Michael Sheehan

      Indeed so. Is that the extent of your criticism?

      The point merely makes it clear in which direction we headed, and continue to head.

      In time to come no doubt it will be again worth reiterating.

      report
    3. Michael Sheehan

      Geographer at Analyst

      In reply to Gil Hardwick

      Gil, it is the extent of my criticism to your post, yes. The fuller extent of my criticism to the article, in general, I have already posted.

      report
  5. Craig Williams

    Dean: Research Education and Senior Lecturer in Biological Sciences at University of South Australia

    Excellent to see a current VC making the point that we don't yet have evidence that uncapping has lowered student quality. I hope that Minister Pyne doesn't make decisions based on 'gut feel' and an antiquated view of Australian universities as solely the province of the elite. Implementation of the Bradley Review should be given time to work - the sky hasn't fallen in yet. Universities will naturally 'cap' themselves according to other drivers.

    The other thing to remember about tertiary entrance rankings is that the way secondary schools assess students has changed, and one can argue that the standards required for a student to achieve a very high entrance score have changed too. Entrance scores are good measures of program desirability and esteem but don't necessarily describe graduate quality.

    report
    1. Michael Sheehan

      Geographer at Analyst

      In reply to Craig Williams

      Craig, sorry but kids with ATARs of 60.0 ain't "elite".

      report
    2. Michael Sheehan

      Geographer at Analyst

      In reply to Craig Williams

      And Bradley did not even go to university.

      report
  6. Mark Toner

    Management Consultant

    Presumably the additional students let in under an uncapped system will have lower ATAR scores. Why don't the VCs produce evidence that students with lower ATARs do not become graduates of lower quality?

    report
    1. Ella Miller

      retired

      In reply to Mark Toner

      TO ALL,
      What is education about and what is it for?
      Is a score on one exam and indication of a student's further
      success ?
      Migrant children who come here at the age of 12 without competency in the English language are disadvantaged as far as entrance scores... but does this mean that they can not be quality students ?
      I remember a so called educator asking me to translate for my parents that my brother should leave school at the age of 15 because he had no hope of obtaining what was then called…

      Read more