AUSTRALIA: Call for massive increase in enrolments

A wide-ranging review of Australian higher education that reported in December has proposed a huge expansion in enrolments of local students to meet the nation's future skills needs. Before the global financial crunch, the prospects of the federal government accepting the review's recommendations were high.

But a decision by the government last week to take the country into deficit with a $A42 billion (US$27 billion) infrastructure spending spree could profoundly affect the likelihood of the review's recommendations being adopted.

The outcome should be known next month when two of the key government ministers involved are to speak at a conference organised by Universities Australia, the association comprised of the nation's vice-chancellors. Education Minister and Deputy Prime Minister Julia Gillard, and the Minister for Innovation, Industry, Science and Research, Senator Kim Carr, will attend the conference and may use the occasion to set out the government's responses.

Although she made no comment about the recommendations, Gillard welcomed the report of the Bradley review of higher education when she released it just before Christmas. Likewise, Carr spoke enthusiastically about the importance of university research when he released the Cutler review of Australia's innovation system last year - a report that called for a big increase in spending on university research.

Last Thursday, Gillard said a series of six roundtable discussions were being conducted to provide opportunities for stakeholders "to respond candidly to the specific recommendations of the Bradley review in a confidential forum".

Regarding the recommendations of the Cutler review on innovation, she said the future of Australia's national research and innovation systems and the higher education sector were closely linked as integral components of the economy.

"While the Bradley and Cutler reviews have outlined a range of issues specific to each sector, there are a number of elements of [both] that are interconnected," Gillard said. "The government has established inter-departmental committees to coordinate the response where it is appropriate."

In a paper* to be published in a forthcoming issue of the Australian Universities Review, Monash University researchers Dr Bob Birrell and Daniel Edwards examine the Bradley report's proposal for a massive expansion in enrolments and consider whether the recommendations are achievable.

The two researchers, from Monash's centre for population and urban research, describe the report as "a crucial milestone in the recent history of Australian higher education". They note that not only does it call for a major boost to domestic higher education training but also a sharp increase in the participation rates of under-represented groups.

The report recommends an overall increase in enrolments so the proportion of 25-34 year-olds holding a bachelor degree or above will jump from 29% to 40% by 2020 - a proposal heartily endorsed by the Monash pair.

"Domestic higher education training was neglected throughout the economic boom since the late 1990s - at great cost to opportunity for young Australian residents," they write. "There has been a flood of new jobs in professional and related fields where university credentials are the minimum requirement, yet during this time there has been almost no growth in domestic undergraduate course completions."

In a report commissioned by the Bradley review, Birrell and his colleagues pointed out that the possession of a degree was becoming the minimum entry qualification for managerial, professional and associate professional occupations. An important factor in this growing demand was employer beliefs that these occupations required increasingly sophisticated analytic and communication skills.

"That is why degree-level qualifications are usually regarded as essential for those entering these occupations," Birrell and Edwards now say. "[This] helps explain why the review has overturned a decade of official denial that there is any need for expansion of the higher education sector."

At the same time, if Australia continues to rely heavily on an influx of migrant professionals, then a significant proportion of those with degrees by 2020 will be foreign degree-holders rather than Australian-born citizens.

The Monash researchers reject this solution but also point to the extraordinary enrolment growth required to meet the Bradley target. In fact, on the data they compiled, a 40% rise in graduate numbers up to 2020 would require more than 284,000 additional students on top of the nearly 800,000 currently enrolled.

"There has not been an increase on this scale since the decade 1989 to 1998 when the number of domestic students (at all levels) increased from 419,962 to 599,670 or 43%. Most of this increase occurred during the recession of the early 1990s and thus well before the [conservative government] took office in 1996."

Birrell and Edwards say that to achieve an increase on this scale would require recruiting tens of thousands of young people from social strata "hitherto largely excluded from university attendance". It could not be achieved from the better-off families whose offspring currently dominate the ranks of university students - because the great majority of these youngsters already attend or have attended university.

They note the recommended scale of expansion would need massive infrastructure investment given that an enrolment increase of even 280,000 would require another 20 full-scale universities catering - at least in their early stages - for 14,000 students each.

"There is simply not the space in existing university campuses to accommodate such numbers. Nor would it be advisable to locate most of the additional teaching and research facilities on existing campuses even if it were possible," the Monash researchers say.

"In our view, the scale of growth required should prompt the government to [create] a new era of higher education expansion. This should include the establishment of new universities located in areas close to under-serviced communities and customised to meet their educational needs.

"There is a strong case that these should be teaching-oriented universities with an explicit mission to attract young people who in the main have no family heritage of higher education and must be convinced of the pay-off should they embark on a costly and extended post-school training regime."

* Read the Birrell and Edwards paper here