Momentous university open door policy abandoned

A decision by the then Labor government in 2008 to lift federal restrictions on university enrolments opened higher education to thousands of young Australians who may never have gained entry to a campus.

It was one of the more momentous events in the history of Australian education. But, by making university accessible to a far greater number of young and older people, the decision also forced universities to adapt to a much broader and socially diverse student intake.

But Labor’s decision to cover the universities’ costs of expanding enrolments proved too expensive for the current conservative administration. In a decision this year, the government capped the enrolment growth rate at the annual percentage increase in Australia’s 18- to 64-year-old population and imposed a freeze on government grants for 2018 and 2019.

Australian student numbers in the nation’s universities have jumped more than 20% as a result of Labor’s ‘open door’ policy and are now estimated to total a record 1.2 million.

Previous federal governments had set a limit on the number of students they would fund at each university, and for each course. Universities could enrol students over the cap, but they would not receive additional government money.

With no financial incentive to take on more students, universities generally didn't.

But when Labor offered to pay for enrolment rises, and vice-chancellors realised they could thereby generate more income, they set out to take in as many students as they could find.

The result was not just overflowing lecture theatres and laboratories but over-large tutorials and overworked academics who struggled to keep up.

Universities Australia, the nation’s peak higher education organisation, however, applauded the scheme saying it had driven an expansion of access for traditionally under-represented groups.

“Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander enrolments at university grew 7.6% in the first half of 2015 and the number of students from low socio-economic backgrounds rose by 3.8%,” said Universities Australia Chief Executive Belinda Robinson in 2015.

"While there is still a long way to go to close the gap, Indigenous students now represent 1.5% of all onshore domestic students, up from 1.1% in 2006."

With multiple entry pathways, mature age enrolments, and a diversity of backgrounds and experience, university entry processes and requirements had necessarily become more complex, Robinson said.

"A university education is no longer the preserve of the elite. It is more important than ever that indicators of a student's potential to successfully complete a degree are taken into account alongside indicators of past performance at school."

But critics within and outside the universities began complaining about the lower educational standards of new students. They pointed out that an increasing number of school-leavers were being admitted, including those with low school scores in their examinations.

Thousands of students who, in the past, would have failed to gain entry, were enrolling and finding an academic life increasingly difficult, the critics claimed.

Osman Faruqi, a former higher education policy advisor for the Greens, said the considerable expansion had come at a cost to both universities and students.

“Successive cuts to university funding, under both Labor and conservative governments, have meant that teaching and learning resources in our public universities aren't keeping pace with the increasing numbers of students,” Faruqi said.

He noted that Australia was the second-lowest funder of higher education in the OECD. Universities had closed the gap between their costs and what the government provided by enrolling more and more students in low-cost degrees such as business and teaching, while supplementing declining government revenue with student fees.

Increased casualisation

The so-called ‘demand-driven system’ introduced by Labor had been linked to increased casualisation among academic and general staff. This was because university accountants could no longer accurately predict student numbers or the staff that might be required.

“So we have an environment where universities compete mercilessly, spending millions of dollars on rebranding themselves in order to attract students as a supplementary revenue source – regardless of their school marks.”

Faruqi said that as students with low school marks had gained entry to university, first-year dropout rates had also risen and were the highest in a decade.

“Students deserve to be supported while studying – not used as a revenue source and then discarded when they discover they can’t keep up. Expanding access to university is a worthwhile policy goal, but only if the students gaining access to a higher education are adequately supported and experience a high-quality learning environment.”

Increasing dropout rates, increasing staff cuts and increasing casualisation rates indicate that was not what they were experiencing, Faruqi said.

As well as their overflowing campuses, universities face more severe problems this year after the federal conservative government announced it would impose a AU$2.8 billion (US$2.2 billion) cut in spending on universities along with increases in student fees.

Federal grants for bachelor degrees will be frozen at 2017 levels in 2018 and 2019, to be followed by an increase from 2020 onwards “subject to performance targets and capped at the growth rate in the 18- to 64-year-old population”, according to Federal Treasurer Scott Morrison.

Graduates earning more than AU$45,000 a year will have to pay 1% of their income to clear their student debts, down from the current threshold of about AU$52,000. The repayment rate will rise to 10% at the upper end for those earning AU$131,989 or more.