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Pyne’s higher education policy rethink should keep universities’ doors open

New education minister Christopher Pyne wants to review the Australian university system because of concerns about declining quality. AAP/Julian Smith

On the surface, Australia’s fourth and fifth ministers for higher education for 2013 - Labor’s Kim Carr and the Coalition’s Christopher Pyne - have political views that are many miles apart. Even by the partisan standards of Canberra, they are passionate supporters of their opposing political parties.

But curiously both have used the first days of their ministerial terms to raise doubts about the demand-driven system of university funding and link it to a perceived slip in university quality. Since caps on undergraduate student places at public universities were eased and then largely abolished, student numbers have increased rapidly, by as many as 190,000 extra students.

Along with uncapping the system, the previous government liked higher education participation targets. It wanted 40% of 25-34 year olds to hold a bachelor degree by 2025. Even more ambitiously, it wanted 20% of domestic undergraduate students to come from a low SES background by 2020.

The new education minister, Christopher Pyne, is distancing himself from these goals. He told Fairfax Media that he did not believe in “targets for targets sake”.

But concerns about quality have been raised with every expansion of the higher education system. This time around though, policymakers were better prepared than ever before.

Expanding enrolments were met with a new national quality regulator, the Tertiary Education Quality and Standards Agency (TEQSA).

The previous state higher education regulators were often accused of not enforcing the standards that were already in place. TEQSA, by contrast, has often been accused of over-zealous enforcement of already tougher standards. Complaints about TEQSA reached the point that the government commissioned a review, which largely endorsed concerns about TEQSA’s approach. Pyne said that they would act on the review’s recommendations “reasonably quickly”.

The TEQSA experience highlights an important aspect of quality regulation. Too many controls in an attempt to eliminate all potential problems can be counter-productive. They divert staff time away from teaching and research to bureaucratic compliance. These are the obvious costs of over-regulation.

Overly prescriptive regulation has effects that can be more damaging in the long run by stifling innovation. Ideas that don’t work are an inevitable part of trying new things, which are turn are essential for long-run improvements.

A return to the original idea of the TEQSA legislation of a risk-based approach will be better. It’s better to deal with the real problems that emerge than to worry about heading off every potential problem.

Pyne agrees with this argument when he says that TEQSA has been “stifling creativity”. But he seems less confident about the experiment in uncapping student places, worrying about Australia’s reputation for quality.

In interviews with the media today, Pyne said that ensuring quality meant reviewing the demand-driven system “because there is some evidence…that quality is suffering to achieve quantity”.

“It would be madness for us to throw away our international reputation by lessening quality,” he said.

Over the next few years, it will be surprising if no instances come to light of universities enrolling more students than they are ready for, or for enrolling students who are not ready for university.

But these cases will need to be seen in the context of the system’s performance overall.

What if, for example, we had gone for the idea of a minimum ATAR of 60 in 2005? On the surface, it sounds plausible that only students in the top 40% of their cohort were ready for higher education.

But the actual completions data for that cohort shows that about six in ten of the below 60 ATAR students who were admitted completed a degree within seven years. This was a potentially life-changing experience for those students.

The completions data also shows that we need to learn more about the third who dropped out without completing a course. Are there predictable characteristics other than ATAR of students who don’t complete? Are there more things universities can do to increase completions?

Trying to answer these questions is better than denying opportunities to lower-ATAR students. But as this next ministerial shakeup of higher education gets underway, we should have confidence that our higher education system can adapt to the challenges of uncapped places.

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