Letting the market rip will suck the soul out of universities

University of Canberra Vice-Chancellor Stephen Parker says the Kemp-Norton review into the demand-driven system has wider ramifications for higher education. Supplied

I honestly don’t know the full range of opinion among Australian vice-chancellors about the recommendations in the recent Kemp-Norton Report on the Demand Driven System. I know the opinions of some, who have already commented in The Conversation and elsewhere, and I can make some rough guesses about a few others whom I have known for some years.

However, as best I can work out, I might be the most sceptical about the proposals, both as to their content and the world view from which they come. I say this despite having advocated changes within my own university precisely because the tide has been moving in this direction for some years and we needed to be ready. So, even if the University of Canberra thrives under market forces, I am doubtful about the long-term public good that might flow from changes with unknowable effects, which will probably be irreversible.

An initial distinction is between Kemp-Norton as written and Kemp-Norton as enlarged (if rural England doesn’t have villages called Little Kemp-Norton and Greater Kemp-Norton, it ought to). We saw with the Bradley Report that the debate around it moved things in directions that had little basis in the report itself; especially the notion of a convergence of higher education and vocational education into “tertiary education”, despite little text itself to support this. A similar morphing into Greater Kemp-Norton may be under way around student fees, which I will come to.

Rational distribution of places makes sense

Starting with Kemp-Norton as written, there is much to agree with. It was silly for Chris Evans abruptly and at almost the last possible minute to cap sub-bachelor places. It is obviously better for students whose prospects of success are at the lower end to begin in a diploma course, specially designed for the purpose and taught with support in mind, than to be thrown into the mass of first-year students.

It is also sensible to give Commonwealth Supported Places for coursework postgraduate courses on a rational and defensible basis rather than the bizarre distribution that currently exists.

It is also hard to disagree with miscellaneous recommendations about data systems, the MyUniversity website and the University Experience Survey.

And it is obviously sensible to have rational criteria around decisions to permit Commonwealth Supported Places to be delivered at new locations, especially as my university was the victim of the absence of any criteria, but I don’t see why a permission is required in the first place. If we are responsible to TEQSA (Tertiary Education Quality Standards Agency) for the quality of what we do, and we are supposed to compete in a market, why should the Commonwealth second-guess us?

Beyond those recommendations, my support begins to weaken.

The marketised sector has no ideals

I didn’t really agree with removing altogether the cap on undergraduate bachelor places and therefore the cap on particular funding clusters, but I’m too late and hardly anyone else seems to agree with me. I’ll let that one go through to the keeper.

I cannot give ready agreement to the expansion of Commonwealth Supported Places to non-university higher education providers. There are some arguments in favour but I want to know what level of funding goes with it, and whether the Commonwealth Grants Scheme amounts to universities are reduced in order to fund an expansion in Commonwealth Supported Places within the system.

I see no upside to dropping equity targets for low socio-economic status participation, but I see a loss in symbolism. Assuming this happens, I’ll try to stop using the word sector, because we aren’t one any more if we cannot subscribe to any ideals at all. I wasn’t born in Australia, but I thought Sir Robert Menzies had strong ideals. Anyway, moving on …

It is the village of Greater Kemp-Norton that really worries me.

Allowing premium fee charges is a heist on taxpayers

Debate has resurfaced about charging domestic students higher contribution amounts, or possibly deregulating top-up fees altogether. If Commonwealth subsidy amounts are to be reduced, then we need the capacity to make up the gap from somewhere.

To be able to go further than the shortfall will obviously please the Group of Eight. And it is rational for them. If for decades the taxpayer has been funding the older universities and they have built a strong research reputation and brand, now picked up in rankings, why wouldn’t they want to leverage off this inheritance and move ahead?

One could characterise it as a heist on taxpayers past and present, however. In my case, the issue is heightened by the extra amount of federal funding that has gone to the ANU for over 60 years (I think) to ensure there was a premier research institution in the country. If this is now leveraged into expanded student numbers at higher fee levels, I oppose it.

And debate has resurfaced about how many Australian universities should be in the upper echelons of world rankings. I think we do amazingly well at the moment, but if China is going to throw billions at its top universities, they will have to displace others. There can only be 500 in the top 500. We surely aren’t going to get into this kind of arms race.

Anyway, if we do want to match the firepower it would be simpler to fund research infrastructure and funding bodies properly than to expect young Australian students to pay for it.

We also see a return of discussion about the importance of diversity of providers. I think the US structure of community colleges is commendable, four-year bachelor providers, research universities and so forth, but I don’t think they got there through market forces. I think they got there through planning, the creation of systems (and systems of systems) and accreditation.

Market forces take the soul out of the sector

This brings me to the rub. I don’t think market forces should be the sole distributive mechanism for the public good of education. I understand the utility of competition to spur performance, but competition and markets are not the same thing. We have competition for research grants but not a market in them.

The market square of Greater Kemp-Norton is a spirit that is antithetical to what I thought higher education was about. I think it will infect everything, particularly if non-university providers are funded at the same rate as universities.

Just working from memory about recent decisions I have made, we have provided support without charge for a series of workshops for domestic violence crisis workers, we have funded a major poetry prize, we are talking to the local prison about helping with music (in the spirit of Johnny Cash, as it were), we are making major contributions to raising the aspirations of Indigenous secondary students, we are sponsoring numerous causes and clubs to an amount probably greater than any university advantage we can calculate. We should stop doing all this, and perhaps retreat to a thin version of corporate social responsibility, just to make sure we can compete with other providers who don’t have the slightest intention of supporting those kinds of activities.

So, despite the fact that my university might thrive under this kind of regime, and I am very willing to form alliances with other kinds of educators, I think we will all lose our souls in the market. Ah well.