Kim Carr concerned by student numbers: the experts respond

Senator Carr promised to examine the proposed funding changes within existing budget constraints. AAP Image/Alan Porritt

The rise of student numbers in Australian universities that followed the lifting of a cap on enrolment quotas last year is concerning, newly-minted Higher Education Minister Kim Carr said today.

Under the “demand-driven system” introduced last year, universities receive funding for as many students as they can enrol. Previously, the government regulated the number of places.

“I’m very concerned that there has been a rapid growth in the number of people participating in universities and concerned to ensure that proper equity is maintained in the Australian education system,” Senator Carr was reported as saying.

“But at the same time, we have to also ensure that there is appropriate levels of quality in terms of the students that are entering the system.”

The government plans to cut higher education funding to pay for the Gonski school reforms but Minister Carr said today he was concerned “to ensure that the monies are available to improve the excellence of the system.”

The proposed funding changes have been fought hard by the higher education sector, which says it cannot afford further cuts. The Australian National University said today it would cut 230 jobs in an effort to make $51 million in savings.

Here are some expert responses to Minister Carr’s comments.

Jane Den Hollander, Vice-Chancellor at Deakin University

The demand-driven system has really benefited Deakin University, especially in Geelong. With the cap off, we were able to fill our places at Burwood and also offer additional student places in Geelong. So Geelong, as a growing regional university city, has benefited from the demand-driven system in a way that we could not have done under the old system where you had fixed numbers of places for each campus.

However, I do think what Minister Carr is saying is interesting. He is saying that it’s worth having a look and seeing what the trends are, where have we got to and where should we go now. I absolutely agree it’s a reasonable thing to do in light of the cuts we have had and maybe there is a different way to look at this so long as we stay true to access and participation to higher education. We know productivity and wealth generation is accelerated by increasing the educational attainment of our citizens.

Kim Carr has been a good minister and I have a great respect for the way he will think through and consult on these matters. We need to understand what the demand-driven system has delivered and where we go forward. But in its current form, it has enormously benefited regional cities like Geelong.

Michael Spence, Vice-Chancellor at University of Sydney

Restoring the cap could be an appropriate way of managing the education budget provided it does not restrict access to students of promise from disadvantaged backgrounds.

Gavin Moodie, Principal Policy Adviser at RMIT University

Critics of the demand-driven system have erected a false dichotomy between access and quality. Having made a trade off between school and higher education, the Labor government is now apparently contemplating a trade off between different parts of higher education.

While some students have been admitted with lower entry scores recently, they have been much lower before, with no evidence of compromises to quality.

Simon Marginson, Professor of Higher Education at University of Melbourne

I’m not surprised Kim Carr is saying these things. The government needs to mollify the sector. $3.8 billion has been taken out of forward estimates for research and higher education over the last 10 months. This includes the efficiency dividend, which is a cut to teaching support, and the halt to the planned phase-in of full research funding – a program developed by Carr himself in his previous stint as innovation minister. The cut to teaching funding was extraordinary given that the base higher education funding review recommended that base funding should go up not down.

Kim Carr knows the sector is at the point of saying ‘Look, we may not be any worse off under an Abbott government’. He knows the government needs to throw out a sweetener. In the absence of new money, he needs to provide the right kind of words. He is saying to the sector, ‘Look, I understand your position’.

From day one of the demand driven system, there’s been speculation about the quality problem. But we don’t have any hard data on it.

Yes, it puts pressure on quality. But you can take steps over time that sustain quality and improve it for those students who wouldn’t otherwise participate in higher education by helping them with the transition. The demand driven system was always about bringing in more people who would require additional transitional help. Most universities realise that. We do not know how many such students need extra support, whether the new programs to support them are adequate, and whether the quality issues, overall, are being addressed effectively.

A lot of that work needs to happen at the school level and that has been happening. The government has proceeded in the right way but we don’t yet know what progress we are making. We cannot say for sure whether there has been a substantially negative impact on quality or not. Whether we have reached the point where structurally, the quality problem is too great to be addressed by transition programs and remedial programs.

For me, the concern is not so much that teaching and learning quality is under pressure – that’s inherent in the demand-driven system – but whether enough students are being retained to the end of school with an adequate preparation for university. That’s where the real structural limits of the demand driven system are felt.

I don’t think [Labor] will go to the election putting the cap back on the demand driven system. It’s a vote getter. It’s the only thing left in Labor’s higher education policy that can attract people in the western suburbs of Sydney to support Rudd.

Again, Carr is showing his empathy with the sector. That’s the meaning of the comment. You could’ve made a statement about quantity/quality trade-off from day one. By making it now, Kim’s going on what a lot of people in the sector feel and think.

He has picked these two issues well: funding cuts, and quality in the demand driven system. He’s making the right noises. He was the innovation minister for five years, he really does understand the issues. It’s a pity we don’t have the opportunity to have him as a higher education minister for a period of time as we all assume Labor will lose the election.

Geoff Sharrock, Program Director at University of Melbourne

Reading a reversal of recent funding cuts into Minister Carr’s statements looks like wishful thinking to me.

The main focus seems to be on the quality of spending not the quantum, and the unintended consequences of uncapping the system.

The government has seen more rapid growth than expected, which costs more to fund than expected.

If I were the Minister, I’d also be concerned about the quality of the student intake at some institutions, and their capacity to scale up provision without dropping standards.

That said, you can’t simply equate higher growth with lower quality. Falling enrolments, which some institutions have seen, will affect their revenue and so may affect their capacity to deliver good programs.

James Arvanitakis, Professor in Cultural and Social Analysis at University of Western Sydney and 2012 winner of the Prime Minister’s University Teacher of the Year Award

I obviously welcome the Minister’s reconsideration of funding. Having a properly funded and independent university sector is fundamental for the economic prosperity and social cohesion of our country.

I think the rapid rise in student numbers has been positive – it is about inclusion and participation – and I do believe that this is a social justice project. Importantly, universities are like any other industry and we need consistency in approach to encourage long term strategic planning – especially when it comes to investing in to the students.

Senator Carr has indicated a review but this should be done in consultation with the teachers at the universities to understand the innovations we have achieved, how we are promoting standards and the life changing experiences, but also the need for appropriate investment in the sector.

We have outstanding PhD graduates across Australia who are living a precarious life in a casualised workforce: many of them race from campus to campus and have no time to expand their research. This is an economic loss to this country and undermines their future. We need to invest in emerging academics because it is here innovation and creativity will follow

In short, I find his concerns about student numbers a little worrying. I believe the expanded university inclusion and participation agenda that opened up higher education to those who previously did not access it has been fantastic and should continue. I believe that this is a social justice issue as access to higher education can be a transformative event and opens up life opportunities.

But having an inclusion agenda is not enough and we need to insure proper funding to service these students. Universities have made leaps and bounds in the use of technology to ensure this access. But technology is not alone and so we need to make sure that there remains the ability to also provide more individualised attention to students.

I do not think there is a simple linear relationship between numbers and quality. Students develop at a different pace and I have seen some students who would have otherwise not attended uni flourish when they arrive.

We also know that the Australian Tertiary Admission Rank (ATAR) is not a determinant of excellence: again, development varies. In fact, there is a relationship between ATAR and the resources available to the students in secondary school – meaning that certain students start behind the eight ball. If we remove the participation agenda, then that can well be double exclusion.

The issue is that if you want to promote an educated and innovative society, it requires investment. The Gonksi Reforms are great – but implementing them at the expense of universities is problematic.