AUSTRALIA: Bold plan to reshape higher education

Australia's 38 public universities face an upheaval on a scale they have not experienced in 20 years under bold new government plans. The main goal in a set of wholesale reforms to the nation's higher education system is the government's intention to boost the number of Australians aged 25 to 34 with bachelor degrees from 32% of the population to 40% over the next 15 years - an enormous challenge given it would mean producing an additional 550,000 graduates by 2025 - and perhaps require more than 20 new universities.

Federal Education Minister Julia Gillard announced some of the reforms last Wednesday in an address to a conference organised by the vice-chancellors organisation, Universities Australia. In the first of a series of three speeches she intends to make, Gillard set out the government's initial responses to recommendations arising from a review of higher education she commissioned after the Labor government was elected in November 2007.

The review was headed by Professor Denise Bradley, former vice-chancellor of the University of South Australia, and her report was released last December. Gillard welcomed the review at the time and has now promised to begin implementing some of its radical recommendations.

"In an era when investment in knowledge and skills promises to be the ultimate determinant of national and individual prosperity, Australia is losing ground against our competitors," Gillard said. "National participation and attainment in higher education is too low. We are losing touch with the OECD's leaders in higher education: between 1996 and 2006, we slipped from seventh in the OECD in terms of attainment among 25-34 year olds to ninth."

Other comparable nations had exacting targets for participation in recent years, Gillard said. Germany had set its target at 40%, Sweden and the UK at 50% while the Irish were aiming at 72%.

She said that in Australia, too few young people from disadvantaged backgrounds were enrolling in higher education while completion rates, estimated by the Bradley review to be less than three in every four students who started at university, were unacceptably low.

These problems had been compounded by an allocation of resources that at best had been "opaque" and at worst were politically determined, Gillard said. As well, there had been a lack of objective benchmarking of teaching quality and performance, student choices had been unnecessarily limited and funding for places has been micro-managed.

Under the first of the reforms, government spending on universities would "follow the student" rather than being allocated to individual institutions as a result of Education Department determinations. Universities would receive their government grants based on the number of students they enrolled and the present cap on enrolments that restricts this number would be lifted.

"Current arrangements for universities, however, will be maintained for the next three years to give under-enrolled providers certainty, in the form of a limit on how much funding they can lose for places that they do not provide," Gillard said. "This will help them to reposition themselves for the new system."

She said a student-centred approach, with clear and strong public interest oversight, was the way forward for university funding in the 21st century. But to provide this oversight, a new a national regulatory and quality agency for higher education would be established that would accredit providers, conduct audits of standards and performance, ensure the quality of international education and streamline current regulatory arrangements to reduce duplication and provide for national consistency.

As Gillard admitted, a key task for the new authority would be to establish objective and comparative benchmarks of quality and performance. But she did say that performance in areas such as retention, selection and exit standards, and graduate outcomes would be important while a priority would be encouraging academics "to value teaching as much as their passion for research".

"The role of a university is unique in our society. It carries with it the weight of history, and, as I have said, a good measure of responsibility for our future," she said. "The right to be designated a university must be earned rather than taken at face value. The measures we are taking - to fund the preferences and needs of students and to establish stronger public accountabilities - will place a considerable onus on our universities. The future of Australia's higher education system rests on its quality and on its reputation."

There is just one hitch, however, with the government's plans: Gillard told the conference the reforms would not begin affecting universities until 2012 - more than a year after the government's current term of office ends. If Labor lost the 2010 election, some or all of its plans could be discarded by a new conservative administration, although the Opposition has yet to indicate its own response to the Bradley recommendations.

To read Gillard's speech to the conference, click here