In higher education quality is in the eye of the beholder

What the government sees as a quality university isn’t necessarily the same as what students see. University of Nottingham. Flickr/Simon Paterson, CC BY-SA

In his National Press Club address, Christopher Pyne argued that higher education deregulation will “transform opportunities for Australians, particularly young Australians to get the quality higher education in Australia that they deserve” and enable Australia to “create some of the best universities in the world and the best higher education system in the world”. The problem is that the government’s version of quality is not necessarily the same quality that potential students, their families and academia may have in mind.

Competition won’t lead to quality teaching

Pyne suggests that by increasing competition in the higher education sector, domestic students will have access to quality teaching and learning. This will come about as a result of institutions vying to attract prospective students and the availability of “information about the quality of courses and institutions”. In this model, students act as consumers of education, making objective decisions about their consumption in line with the principles of competition.

Positioning student demand as the driver of teaching quality, however, is problematic. Prioritising students’ conception of “quality” is likely to motivate higher education institutions to keep students happy rather than educate them. As students have an interest in more than just the academic quality of a course – the credentials a course offers and potential employment opportunities the course will make available will also be relevant – there is a risk that educational quality will actually be undermined.

More importantly, placing the student in the role of consumer sends dangerous messages to prospective students about the nature of education.

In the market-based model a student-consumer can simply buy an education. If things go wrong or the student ends up lacking the promised knowledge and skills, it is the seller’s fault in that the product is deficient. Education, however, is not a one-way delivery system in this sense; in order to learn, students must engage with what is being taught, learn to analyse and challenge ideas. Encouraging students to view themselves as consumers, in the same way that they are consumers of other goods or services, risks encouraging them to disengage from the learning process.

Further, in the market model, higher education institutions are driven to maximise resources rather than ensure the integrity of the educational services they offer. As a result, institutions are likely to focus on the provision of economically relevant knowledge and skills at the cost of less commodifiable education that may, nevertheless, have other societal benefits.

Research quality won’t keep international students enrolled

Pyne argues that a market-based approach to higher education, in which higher education institutions are able to make their own “informed choices”, in particular in relation to “what fees they charge”, will improve Australian higher education institution rankings. Higher rankings will entice international students to study in Australia, bringing with them increased revenue for higher education institutions. The result should be improved quality and increased revenue in the sector.

Rankings, however, are largely based on research, not teaching. In order to improve in rankings, institutions need to fund their research. The most likely source of funding in the market model is student tuition fees, which will likely be inflated as a result of perceived institutional “prestige”.

In other words, “quality” higher education institutions may be excellent at research, but because they need to devote their resources to research they are unlikely to dedicate resources towards innovation in teaching. International students may be attracted to rankings, but they are unlikely to stay enrolled at an institution where the teaching is not also “quality”.

A better alternative?

Pyne asserts that “Australia’s current higher education and research system is unsustainable” and he has a point. Increasing demand for higher education does pose an issue in terms of financing the higher education sector.

Nevertheless, rather than introducing a market model, which is generally unsupported by research, or threatening to cut research funding if the reforms are not introduced, alternatives should be considered. The market model is unlikely to produce real academic quality, but that doesn’t mean that we should stop looking for a model that will.