Labor flags higher ed plan with aim to reduce attrition

Universities should be accountable for their funding, says Shadow Higher Education Minister Kim Carr. AAP

Shadow Higher Education Minister Kim Carr has outlined Labor’s plan for higher education should it be elected, saying it would focus on university completion rather than enrolment.

Carr said that in return for public investment, Labor would expect universities to be accountable for the use of taxpayer funds, focusing on areas of shortage in the workforce and degree attainment rather than enrolment.

He pointed to drop out rates across the system of nearly one in seven, and in some courses of more than one in five.

He said Labor was “well advanced in devising an alternative plan” for universities, focused on “equity, accessibility, quality and attainment” and including consultation from the sector.

Carr was speaking on Thursday at the annual Universities Australia conference. Opposition leader Bill Shorten aired some of Labor’s concerns about high attrition rates on Wednesday, pointing to low-ATAR applicants as some of the most frequent drop-outs.

Shorten said that in 2010, fewer than 2000 applicants with an ATAR below 50 received an offer to study at university, but by 2014 more than 7000 received an offer.

He also pointed to a government study that said nearly a quarter of students with ATARs below 50 didn’t enrol for a second year, and only half with ATARs below 59 completed their degree.

“They leave university with a student debt, but no degree,” Shorten said.

“This growing group of Australians who enrol in university and don’t graduate, poses a fundamental question for the future of higher education.”

However, higher education analyst Tim Pitman said equating better quality with excluding lower-ATAR students was a fallacy.

Pitman said the 7000 low ATAR students who received a university offer in 2014 made up less than 6% of all offers made, and less than half accepted the offer made to them.

“Even fewer actually enrolled and went on to study,” Pitman said.

“The reality is that in our universities, the number of low-ATAR students is proportionally very low, especially considering ATARs only relate to Year 12 applicants, who make up only around half of the students in the system.

"Excluding them won’t have any discernible impact on higher education quality, but it will deny opportunities for many promising students,” he said.

In a statement, Education Minister Christopher Pyne said Labor’s calls for increases in quality were really revelations of its “secret plan” to reinstate caps on university places should it be elected at the next federal election.

Pyne said a reinstatement of caps would amount to “a giant unfair lock-out from universities” and a return to “the days where Canberra decided who can go to university”.

Shorten and Carr both denied they planned to remove the demand-driven funding system, saying it was the former Labor government that imposed the system in the first place.

Co-author of the Abbott government’s demand-driven funding review Andrew Norton said if caps were reinstated it would not only disadvantage the students who miss out on a place at university, but also those who do get in.

“Without the demand driven system, fewer students will get into their first-preference course.

"Universities will face less pressure to improve the student experience, as they will face less competition,” he said.

He said Labor is right to focus attention on low-ATAR students, and that they are probably less likely to repay their student debt as they are more likely to leave without a degree and therefore earn under the repayment threshold. However, limiting their numbers by regulation isn’t the right way to go about it.

“Better enrolment decisions will be made if prospective students are properly informed of the risk they are taking, and universities that persistently have high attrition face trouble with the regulator, TEQSA,” he said.