New government review to examine uncapped uni places

A new review into how the government will fund university places will report early next year. AAP Image/Julian Smith

The government has appointed former Howard government education minister David Kemp and leading education academic Andrew Norton to review the demand driven funding system for higher education.

Announcing the inquiry, Education Minister Christopher Pyne said that as a matter of “good practice” policies should be monitored to ensure they were working as intended. The review will report in mid-February.

Pyne has previously been concerned that there was “some evidence …that quality is suffering to achieve quantity”.

Labor brought in the system in 2012 which removed the cap on the number of university places the government would fund. The government now funds Commonwealth-supported places for all domestic undergraduate students accepted into a bachelor degree course (excluding medicine) at a public university.

The number of Commonwealth supported places has expanded from 469,000 in 2009 to 577,000 in 2013. Some universities leaders have called on the review to consider fee deregulation to deal with the rising costs associated with more students.

Kemp’s long political career as an advisor, Liberal party official and member of parliament included serving as minister in the areas of education, employment, training, youth affairs, environment and heritage.

Norton is the higher education program director at the Grattan Institute, and a honorary fellow at the Centre for the Study of Higher Education at Melbourne University.

In Norton’s own article on The Conversation, he has previously praised the current system, saying:

“The demand-driven system is the big higher education achievement of Labor’s term in office. It would be a policy tragedy to start unwinding it now.”

Pyne said he had asked Kemp and Norton to recommend possible improvements “to ensure the system better meets its objectives, is efficient, is fiscally sustainable, and supports innovation and competition in education delivery”.

Opposition higher education minister, Kim Carr warned the review could become “a stalking horse for increasing student fees.”

“Let’s not forget this review is being conducted by the former Minister and his adviser who oversaw the introduction of measures while in government for domestic undergraduate students to be charged full fees,” he said.

Higher education expert Gavin Moodie said given Kemp and Norton were proponents of the demand driven system in government, the review would be very “sympathetic”. He also said the review would likely consider reform options rather than overhauling the entire system.

These could include extending the system to private providers of higher education, reducing government subsidies for programs like law, business and the creative arts and reducing the inconsistencies with postgraduate programs (some of which are full fee paying and some of which Commonwealth supported places).

Researcher at the National Centre for Student Equity in Higher Education, Tim Pitman said the review was premature.

“We have had only two years of a demand driven system so it is too early to provide definitive answers,” he said.

But there were some early indications that the uncapped system was improving access to higher education.

“Overall, Commonwealth supported places have increased by almost a quarter over the last five years. A significant proportion of those places – about 20% - have gone to students from socio-economically disadvantaged backgrounds.”

Andrew Dempster, higher education policy adviser at Swinburne University, said the review’s balanced terms of reference “make it clear that it’s to be a genuine inquiry”.

But he said the government would face pressure from Australia’s “sandstone universities” to reimpose capped places. He added that since the introduction of the demand driven system “universities have responded by offering new opportunities for students and embraced new modes of delivery”.

Under its terms of reference the review will examine:

  • the effectiveness of system’s implementation, including policies on the allocation of sub-bachelor and post graduate places.

  • early evidence on the extent to which it is increasing participation, improving access for students from low socio-economic status backgrounds and rural and regional communities, and meeting the economy’s skill needs.

  • the extent to which the reforms have encouraged innovation, competition, diversity, and greater responsiveness to student demand including development of new modes of delivery such as online learning.

  • whether there is evidence of any potential adverse impacts on the quality of teaching and of future graduates.

  • measures universities are taking to ensure quality teaching is maintained and enhanced.

  • whether less academically prepared students are receiving the support they need to complete their courses.

The inquiry will take submissions which can be sent to

— with Michelle Grattan, Professorial Fellow at the University of Canberra and Chief Political Correspondent with The Conversation.