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

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

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.

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