university entry standards

Degrees of Deception

 ABC TV     |      20 April 2015

Four Corners on degrees for dollars


Australia has been gripped by a national debate over how to fund our university education. But perhaps there’s a more important question: what is it worth?  A Four Corners investigation has claimed to unearth alarming new evidence of a decline in academic standards at institutions around the country.


Four CornersLecturers and tutors are grappling with a tide of academic misconduct and pressure from faculty managers to pass weak students. Many say commercial imperatives are overtaking academic rigour.

But why is this happening?

As Federal Government funding for universities has declined, Vice-Chancellors have been forced to look elsewhere to fill the void.

And for much of the past two decades, they’ve been tapping into a booming market – full fee-paying overseas students.

Right now the country’s 40 universities are pulling in billions of dollars from students who are desperate for a degree from an Australian university and the possibility of a job and permanent residency.

But to ensure a steady flow of students from overseas, universities have had to ensure their entry requirements are sufficiently low.

In this report, Linton Besser also provides alarming evidence of corruption among the network of overseas agents who tout for business on universities’ behalf.


quote marksThe risk is they’re going to put applicants through to the university with fake qualifications or who they know have cheated on tests, or who are trying to undertake some sort of visa fraud.
–              Corruption investigator.


Ironically, these forces are also placing international students under enormous pressure.
Despite the promises of agents, and after meeting universities’ entry requirements, many don’t have the level of English needed to successfully undertake a degree course.

It’s a situation that leaves students isolated and desperate; a scenario fuelling a thriving blackmarket in plagiarism and the corruption of some academics.

An experienced lecturer told Four Corners the failure to maintain standards in the course she teaches means graduates could put lives in danger when they begin working.

They might find themselves being the only registered nurse on duty. And that is something that frightens me.

– University Nursing lecturer

With universities now hooked on the income derived from foreign students, very few university employees can openly acknowledge these problems. Those who do, say that they face the possibility they will lose their job.

Degrees of Deception

Who should go to university?

16 April 2015


Conor King of the Innovative Research Universities group fears that in the absence of university fee deregulation, the demand driven-system will be dumped.


New higher education minister Kim Carr is considering a rethink on the opening up of university places. AAP/Julian Smith
Back to the future?

Who should go to university, only the select or all who want to? It is the question that ran through the 2015 Universities Australia Conference in March. It is lurking behind the contentious funding and fees debate that has wracked higher education for the past year. It is the issue that determines how well higher education supports Australia’s future.

Gary Banks, former Productivity Commissioner, best illustrated the question. He revealed the ambivalence between the economist in him and the romantic academic. The economist argues human capital theory – the importance of each individual developing their education and skills to the optimum to apply in future work and life. The academic worries about the flood of people on campus, too many of whom do not meet the test of bright minds in pursuit of knowledge.

Professor Banks went further to target one key to the problem – the education achievement of school leavers. If school leavers have the knowledge and skills expected from study through to year 12 then the arguments for open access to university make sense. If they do not, then the instinctive desire of higher education protectionists has a stronger foundation. They can cloak their exclusionary preference in the garb of applicants’ insufficient education development. The same challenge applies to the large number of non school leaver applicants.

Senator Carr has rarely hidden his support for the protectionist argument. Labor is now at the point of walking away from one of the few unchallenged policies of the Rudd-Gillard Government and from the essence of the Hawke Government achievement in doubling school retention and expanding universities. It is the Gillard changes that have seen sustained growth in the number of science and technology students, and slowed growth in law students, despite his contrary assertion. Student demand is more attuned to employment potential and apparent future demand than the previous allocation system.

Senator Carr’s proposals to create incentives for universities to ensure all those they enrol gain the education they need, neither falling by the wayside nor emerging essentially unskilled, is a useful idea: the initial Gillard package included performance funding measures precisely to do that. Honing in on low ATAR entrants, casting 50 as some sort of pass mark, is not. Professor Shergold rightly focused at the outcomes graduates have, not what they knew at entry.

Rose Steele, President of the National Union of Students, highlighted the issue, perhaps inadvertently but instinctively. She argued that university had to remain open to all ‘bright’ people, in her opposition to deregulating fees. ‘bright’ is a judgment but the sense is clear, that school leavers with middle to low ATARs are not ‘bright’.

The essence of the Dawkins expansion of universities followed through by the Bradley report’s demand driven funding is that higher education is one additional part of the education pathway which all people should have access to. The judgment of suitability is the gain the individual will get, not whether they are more or less capable than someone else.

So lets think about the schools as Professor Banks argued.

Over the 1980s year 12 retention rates doubled from being for the minority, 35% of the age cohort in 1980, to being for the majority at 77% in 1992, with small fluctuations since.1 This doubled the base group of university eligible students, and extending it across all regions. Every concern expressed about widening university access applies to this change in school completion rates. If twice as many
were completing school then surely standards had to fall, schools would struggle to deal with students with a wide range of academic capability and interest, school leavers would be overeducated for the jobs they took, and worst of all more and more people would think they were eligible for university.

Few people now question the value of high levels of year 12 retention and completion. We expect the schools to cope with the wide range of students. We blame them not the students for weaknesses in education standards.

The high school retention rates affect the ATAR. With over 70% of the school leaver cohort completing year 12 it means that those students are spread by definition across the ATAR range from 99 to less than 30. To determine that 50 is a pass point for university entry is to exclude over a quarter of year 12 graduates automatically from university.

The ATAR has sense in determining who, from those suitable, can access a particular course if places are limited – if you accept that priority should go to those initially more capable. It has no sensible role in determining who is suitable. For that you need to consider the skills of the applicant against those deemed needed for the course. School systems have that information (eg. see NSW grades ); universities to date largely ignore it.

The regional evidence undermines the argument that university must be selective because some of those year 12 completers are simply not ready for university. There are regions where 90% of the school age cohort completes year 12 and over 60% go on to university; conversely in other areas completion is lower around 60% with 20% to 30% going on to university. I have not seen anyone show that there is that level of difference in academic capability between regions.

At heart the protectionists are fighting a rear guard action to defend universities against the expectation that they be a place of education for all, not just for the bright and the socially well off. It is a strange argument that says that very high achievers can advance their knowledge only when surrounded by the few others like themselves with exclusive access to the most learned staff. It has never been true of Australian universities.

It is why I disagree that the funding and fee proposals in the Pyne package were the most radical in decades, or even centuries to echo Bruce Chapman’s rare hyperbolic moment. University financing options consume a lot of time, they generate lots of acrimony but ultimately they are about underpinning what the university does. HECS, now HELP, is a major mechanism to remove financial barriers, but it is a tool not the objective.

The significant change kicked off by Menzies, intensified by Whitlam and Dawkins, expanded by Gillard and open now for completion is to say that higher education is for all – bright, lumbering, rich and poor. It is what you will gain that matters, not whether you are better or worse than someone else.

1 ABS, National Schools Statistics Collection Australia 1985, CATALOGUE NO. 4221.0, Table 11 and ABS, Australian Social Trends March 2011, Year 12 Attainment, ABS catalogue no. 4102.0

ACER higher education update

28 February 2014

ACER higher-ed-banner-640_1

The first edition of ACER’s Higher Education Update for 2014 examines the impact of financial support on student decisions to defer, as well as what ATARs and attrition rates tell us about the relationship between growth and quality in higher education. We also explore whether Australia’s medical school admissions tools can or should predict the course performance of students.For more information on ACER’s higher education research please visit


The impact of financial support on university deferral


While there has been a substantial decline in the proportion of university deferrals in Victoria since student financial support has been increased, location and socioeconomic status continue to play a role in restricting access to higher education.


Predicting success in medical studies

Daniel Edwards discusses the findings of a multi-institution investigation of the ability of Australia’s medical school admissions processes to predict future achievement levels.


Growth and ‘quality’ in higher education

Strong growth in university enrolments may not necessarily be affecting quality, according to analysis by Daniel Edwards and Ali Radloff.

In other news

Creating an engaged student experience

International experience shows that, by putting in place the right conditions, institutions can improve student engagement.

Grey literature in Australian education
Gerald White discusses the need to better organise the proliferation of non-commercially published reports and documents of particular importance in the area of public policy.

More news


Regional students prefer direct approach

The Australian     |    6 December 2013

There’s been a big increase in direct applications to universities, with the total number of direct applications to universities having increased from 61 805 in 2010 to 82,890 in 2013 (plus 34.1%). The increase in 2013 was 12.6%.


competitionPeter Lee, chairman of the Regional Universities Network RUN, has defended a 6% drop in applications this year to regional unioversities, saying a “massive increase” in direct applications by both school-leaver and mature-age students more than compensated for the fall in official applications data.   The official data only counts applications via state tertiary admission centres (TACs).  Lee said

“There is a growing trend across the sector for students to apply directly to universities rather than going through a TAC. While the Department’s figures show a decline in students applying to RUN universities through a TAC of 5.8%compared to an increase of 0.8% for the sector as a whole, direct applications to RUN universities in 2013 increased by 23 %.

The Applications Offers and Acceptances 2013  report released by the Commonwealth education department in early December shows that RUN universities received 14,561 applications via TACs and 14537 directly.

Lee said growth in direct applications was across the sector.  Since 2010, there has been a 34.1 % increase in direct applications.  In 2013, direct applications and offers across the sector grew by 12.6% and 8.3% respectively.

Among school leavers, 97.6% of applicants to RUN institutions were made an offer but only 67.6% cent accepted it.


Policy directions in higher education

ACPET     |     15 December 2013

ACPET_Journal_JUNE13_WEB-Cover-imageIn this commentary for the ACPET Journal for Private Education, Brendan Sheehan looks to the higher education policy horizon under the newly elected Coalition government.  On the face of it, he writes,  education generally is an area in which little immediate change would be anticipated, with the major parties going to the election on broadly bipartisan platforms.  But no sooner had the ink dried on Christopher Pyne’s commission as minister for education than he was canvassing a range of interesting propositions around concerning equity, quality and the demand driven system and the sale of HECs debt.   The simple fact of the National Commission of Audit and the Review of the Demand Driven System, both of which are to report in early 2014, portends likely far reaching changes in policies and programs for the higher education sector.   The 2014 Budget on 13 May 2014 ought to be full of interest, in the Chinese curse sense,in a range of areas of government spending.   At the time of the writing of this commentary (early November), Pyne had yet to have a go at his backflip on schools funding, an exercise which makes the observation that “Abbott intends to pursue an orderly and methodical approach to government” seem altogether wrong headed.   That’s the risk with crystal ball gazing.

 . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

Former prime minister Paul Keating’s declaration that “when you change the government, you change the country” is like most truisms: it is difficult to argue with at a general level but it is actually a gross oversimplification. By definition, voters want to change the country, at least to the extent of changing the government. But there is an enduring, even disarming, thread of continuity in Australian public policy over the past century and more:

  •  the federation project very nearly foundered in the 1890s over the issue of water rights to the various colonies from the Murray Darling Basin
  • protection of Australian manufacturing industry was the issue that defined the first parliaments
  • the first major piece of legislation introduced into the Commonwealth parliament in 1901 was the Immigration Restriction Bill
  • Australian foreign policy has always been shaped by the need to nurture a great and powerful friend
  • one of the major social policy initiatives of the Fisher Labor government in 1912 was a baby bonus of £5 payable to mothers of European extraction – think “one for mum, one for dad and one for the country” and multiply by two.

Still, the recent election of the Abbott government portends significant changes in policy direction in a number of areas, the most notable associated with climate change issues. On the face of it, education generally is an area in which little immediate change would be anticipated, with the major parties going to the election on broadly bipartisan platforms.

In the specific area of higher education, Tony Abbott set out in February 2013  “seven policy pillars“, the first and foremost of which was “stability”. Abbott told the Universities Australia conference:

…. we will be a stable and consultative government. If we put in place a policy or a programme, we will see it through. If we have to change it, we will consult beforehand rather than impose it unilaterally and argue about it afterwards. We understand the value of stability and certainty, even to universities.

Unfortunately for universities, that stability and certainty locked in $3.8 billion in funding cuts, including a so-called “efficiency dividend”, effected by the Gillard government in its final year.

Unfortunately also for non-university higher education providers (NUHEPs), stability and certainty would mean that there is no likelihood in the foreseeable future of the policy and funding frameworks of higher education being reworked to accommodate a greater role for them through, for example, the extension of Commonwealth subsidies to private higher education students.

However, no sooner had the ink dried on Christopher Pyne’s appointment as Minister for Education than he set hares running with public musings about the need to review the demand-driven system whereby all students enrolled by a university attract a Commonwealth subsidy.  He declared that you would have to be “living in a bubble if you think that there is not an issue in universities about whether there are quality issues about the extraordinary number of students being enrolled”.

In a sense, this merely continued the bipartisan approach: Pyne’s immediate predecessor, Labor’s Kim Carr, had expressed similar public views during his short tenure.

With ministers in other portfolios exercising their newfound authority, Prime Minister Abbott brought public musings to an end and imposed a cone of silence, requiring that all interviews be “coordinated” through his office.  While it has been widely commented upon, such a degree of central coordination and control is not at all unusual in contemporary media management arrangements and shows that Abbott intends to pursue an orderly and methodical approach to government.

First things first. The Commission of Audit is to report in January and March 2014 in order to inform the development of the Coalition government’s first budget in May 2014. The commission is charged with closely scrutinising all lines of expenditure and making recommendations about priorities, savings, and efficiencies.

It is not at all helpful for that process to have ministers unilaterally ruling things in and/or out. Abbott is starting with a largely clean slate on the budget, apart from a few signature policies such as abolishing the carbon tax and introducing paid parental leave, and understandably he wants to keep it that way, leaving room to move once the commission has reported. If the government is to take contentious decisions, as it certainly will, it wants to be “impelled” by the circumstances (“there is no alternative”), with the authority and justification of the commission’s report behind it.

During the election period, the Coalition argued that Australia faced a budget emergency. The problem was apparently not so much now as “going forward”. The river of gold flowing into Treasury coffers during the decade-long resources boom was spent by governments of both persuasions and was locked in, even as the river dries up and our terms of trade deteriorate. On top of that are recent big ticket areas of expenditure in the offing, including disability care, schools funding, defence capability, parental leave, and transport and other infrastructure. These commitments generally extend beyond the forward estimates period (beyond 2016, after the next election) and are therefore unfunded. The money is yet to be found for such programs. There are also the implications of an ageing population given the rising social costs of looking after the baby boomers in their retirement with fewer overall taxpayers. This will be exacerbated at the other end of the scale by the long-term trend of younger people entering the workforce later as they pursue education and training.

The former government faced these dilemmas in framing its final budget, of how to reconcile a large and growing revenue shortfall with big spending promises. As one commentator put it:

Labor … tried to pursue a sort of “low tax” social democracy. Australia has tried more than any other country to target assistance, promoting equity with very low taxes, but I think we are now seeing the limits of that strategy. We can have decent services or very low taxes — not both.  The ongoing deficit is a sign of Australia’s low tax base.

 The Abbott government has since compounded its own declared emergency with a range of revenue and expenditure measures such as scrapping taxes, changing superannuation arrangements, and bankrolling the Reserve Bank to the tune of $8.8 billion which means that the budget task (returning the budget to balance/surplus over time) has become more difficult. The Budget bottom line has deteriorated at least 30% since the election, with the 2013/14 budget deficit headed south of $40 billion rather that the $30 billion projected in the pre-election economic statement.

One can imagine what the Commission of Audit is going to say about all this – and it won’t be along the lines of proposing tax increases: revenue does not come within the scope of its terms of reference.

It could be argued, and undoubtedly will be by some, that the higher education sector — in reality, the university part of the sector — has already contributed to the budget task through the nearly $4 billion in savings that have been extracted over the current forward estimates period (the next four years).  The National Tertiary Education Union estimates that the savings measures of $2.8 billion announced earlier this year will reduce Commonwealth funding for each student place by $600 between 2012 and 2015.

However, that argument is not at all likely to insulate the sector from further “savings” and “efficiencies”.  One respected commentator, Peter van Onselen (both an academic and a journalist), expects the Coalition government to take the axe to higher education funding in the manner that the Howard government did in its first budget (over the period 1996 to 2001). In that period, Commonwealth outlays on higher education declined from 56.7% of the total to 43.8%, with a commensurate rise in student contributions and fees).

quote marks It has been clear for some time that general budget pressures, and the ballooning cost of higher education, would bring the gaze of policymakers, post-election, to the efficacy of a demand-driven system — whatever the hue of the government.   

 The post-election gaze is unlikely to stop at the demand-driven system, and will certainly take in the architecture of the entire system, including the place of non-university higher education provision, which has a small but growing role in provision.

 Over the six years of the Labor Rudd/Gillard government, there was explosive growth in higher education participation, and funding, fuelled by the phase out of enrolment caps during the period 2010–2012. In announcing its last set of funding cuts in April 2013, the Gillard government claimed that student numbers had increased by 34% or an extra 146,000 students (more recently, it has been reported as 190,000 extra students) and funding had increased by 50% since 2007.  That was on an upward trajectory, with enrolments projected to increase by another 100,000 students, and expenditure by another couple of billion dollars, by 2016.

 In order to meet the target of 40% of 25-34 year olds having a bachelor degree by 2025, it is estimated that there will need to be at least about another 300,000 students in higher education by 2025 (with some estimates suggesting up to 500,000 additional students).

 The requirements of meeting that projected growth is enough to cause any minister to contemplate the need for change.

The growth in participation in higher education has sparked a debate about entry standards, with a report by the Australian Council of Educational Research analysing university admission data Australian Tertiary Admission Rank (ATAR) entry scores — which are used to determine university placements by ranking academic performance relative to every other Year 12 student — showing that ATARs are on average are declining.

Why this should have come as a surprise to anybody is, itself, a surprise. The main aims of the higher education reforms arising out of the Bradley Review process were to:

  1.           increase higher education attainment in the general population and
  2.           increase higher participation by poorly represented population groups (primarily low SES, disadvantaged, regional, and Indigenous people).

The overall effect must be that, on average, a lower ATAR than had hitherto been necessary (or no ATAR at all) will get more applicants into a university course than had previously been the case (though not into any university course at any university).

However, Christopher Pyne has declared that he will not be bound by the former government’s higher education policies, including its targets.

Pyne’s concerns are widely, although nowhere near universally, shared in the sector. There are no definitive data as to whether the average decline in ATARs for university entry has been accompanied by a decline in quality.

Nevertheless, there is a direct correlation between ATAR and risk of dropping out, with analysis by Andrew Norton at the Grattan Institute showing that school leavers who enter university with an ATAR of 90 or above have a 90% chance of completing their degree, and completion rates fall in a corresponding line with lower ATARs. On average, students with ATARs below 60 drop out at a rate of one in three, and those with ATARs below 50 drop out at the rate of 50%.  Norton strongly supports retention of the demand-driven system on the grounds of both equity and efficiency, as do vice-chancellors of universities that have significantly grown their student numbers (and Universities Australia has urged caution on this).

The quality argument has been led by the Group of Eight (Go8) universities, the research-intensive universities at the elite end of the spectrum. They have argued that direct entry to university for school leavers should be restricted to those with an ATAR of 60 or more, with a minimum 70 for teachingAccording to the Go8, this would save $750 million over four years, and that amount could be used to partially offset recent cuts and be partiallyreinvested in an improved system of pathway courses to provide access to higher education for students who do not meet the academic preparation benchmark straight from school.

Greg Craven, Vice-Chancellor of Australian Catholic University, has said that “it is an endearing eccentricity of the ‘university quality’ debate that it is about the quality of the students, not the universities. In fact, it’s about money.”

Craven’s correct: of course, it’s about money. His own university has doubled in enrolments since 2009 and, under current settings, is set to grow about another 25% by 2015.  Inevitably, that results in less money going to the older universities — which are growing at nowhere near that rate — and, in a budget constrained environment, it has served to divert public funding from other university activities such as research.  The negative impact of budget savings has fallen on research funding, and, so the research intensive universities claim, disproportionately on them.

However, the Go8 has now moved away from a rather crude, self-serving formulation of “what about us?”, to one of equity. There is a point to that perspective.

Sue Willis and Catharine Burnheim of Monash University have suggested that some of the money being spent on enrolling more low-ATAR students into degrees would be better spent on pathway programs and vocational education and training.  Data show that low-ATAR students, who are selected on the basis of their performance in pathway programs, perform strongly and in a wider range of fields than they would otherwise be able to access:

 Admitting under-prepared students with low ATARs not only increases their risk of non-completion, it restricts their choices.  Lower ATAR students admitted directly to bachelor degrees are being selected on the basis of their current preparation, rather than their potential for university study, while graduates of pathway programs have a chance to prepare for a wider range of disciplines, and demonstrate their aptitude for tertiary study.

The Coalition government will not simply restore the caps and return to the highly centralised student place allocation system of the past. Both the Minister for Education and the Prime Minister have ruled that out. Rather, the approach is most likely to be what is obliquely referred to as a “re-calibration” — the caps you have when you don’t have caps. It will most likely be around some form of minimum ATAR.

A recent proposal by Glyn Davis, vice-chancellor of the University of Melbourne (one of the Go8) is that the appropriate cap is on funding rather than on student places, with the universities being broadly free to set their own goals and their student profile, allocating funding between postgraduate and pre-degree places, as well as undergraduate places (only undergraduate places are uncapped). However, as Curtin University (not a G08 member) academic ,Tim Pitman, observed “ ‘(deciding) student profiles’ sounds better than ‘restricting access’ and ‘within the funding envelope’ certainly sounds more agreeable than ‘cutting higher education funding’ but they amount to the same thing.” Quite.

Still, it is one of the options, and it accords with the sentiment of Abbott’s seven pillars, which include not seeking to “micro-manage universities” (although the Howard government most certainly did as much micro-managing as the Rudd/Gillard governments).

It appears almost certain that the form and level of fees — both the government subsidy for students in Commonwealth supported places and the student contribution (what is usually referred to as the Higher Education Contribution Scheme, or HECS) — will come into the Commission of Audit’s considerations.

Minister Pyne himself briefly emerged from the cone of silence to indicate that the Commission of Audit should consider “securitising” HECS debt — that is, selling off the debt to investors, in one form or another.

Although Pyne referred to the sale of student debt in England as some sort of a precedent, he did not mention that it had not exactly been a booming success there.  Two previous attempts have realised relatively small proceeds (a couple of billion pounds against a book value in excess of 40 billion pounds). To be attractive to investors, whatever the short-term boost to the balance sheet, it would have to be on such conditions (involving discounts, higher interest rates, guarantees, and the like) as to impose significant medium- to long-term costs to individuals and government.

The same conditions would apply in Australia. To be attractive to investors, the sale of the debt would have to be at a discount — say $12-15 billion for the $23 billion book value of the debt — and involve other sweeteners, such as an increase in the HECS interest rate to something approximating market rates. As economist Joshua Gans explains it, such a sale would be a mere accounting trick that does not make sense in terms of prudent financial management.

Whether as an alternative to securitisation or as part of a securitisation package, significant changes to HECS (HELP) seem certain. These could include the introduction of a real interest rate (perhaps something higher than CPI but lower than market rates), a lower repayment threshold (currently HECS debtors begin repaying when their income exceeds $51,000), methods to collect repayments from expatriates (bilateral agreements with the UK and New Zealand, to start with), and recovery of HECS debts from deceased estates.  A proponent of such reforms in the past has been former education minister, Amanda Vanstone — a member of the Commission of Audit.

The Business Council of Australia (BCA) has also set out its own proposals for higher education reform. The BCA’s agenda includes deregulating university fees, an issue that is strongly championed by the Go8 universities and largely (though not universally) opposed by the rest.

Indeed, Go8 chair Fred Hilmer, perhaps the strongest champion of fee deregulation, has taken it a step further, proposing that the public subsidy be withdrawn altogether for some high demand disciplines such as law and business in return for universities being able to charge higher fees. This has been done elsewhere. Although when in opposition the British Conservative Party promised not to interfere with fees, in government they promptly trebled them and withdrew the public subsidies from all but the STEM fields of study (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics, regarded as core disciplines). Hilmer’s proposal could be taken to its logical extension by “privatising” the student loan as well, supporting it by a public subsidy along US lines. Doing so would fix the growing public HECS burden, albeit at the cost of creating a hybrid system difficult to administer.

Withdrawing the public subsidy for non-STEM disciplines would at least “correct”, in what I would call a perverse sort of way, an inequity in Australian higher education where, with a couple of minor exceptions, only university undergraduate courses attract a public subsidy.  The increasing number of students taking higher education courses at NUHEPs — public and private — get nothing. This places the latter at a distinct competitive disadvantage relative to universities. It significantly disadvantages students undertaking unsubsidised higher education at NUHEPs, many of whom have had an unconventional pathway to higher education as against students undertaking subsidised higher education at a university.

The better way of correcting this inequity would be to extend at least some public subsidy for non-university degree and pre-degree courses. Over the past 18 months or so, collaborative arrangements have been established between universities and NUHEPs, resulting in the tentative emergence of a new style of integrated (or comprehensive) tertiary provider, with a strong orientation towards teaching and scholarship (the “polytechnic”, however described), using Commonwealth Supported Places, such as the Australian Polytechnic Network (APN). It remains tentative because former education minister Chris Evans, vetoed such arrangements while his successor, Chris Bowen, subsequently approved them, at least in the case of the APN. There is no indication of Minister Pyne’s attitude, but, in the current budget environment, it might be supposed that he would not be favourably disposed to see an extension of Commonwealth funding, particularly where it might be seen to support forms of education that in effect substitute for state funded VET activity (which was ostensibly Evans’ reasoning).

In areas of shared funding in Australia’s federal system, particularly concerning health education and training, issues of maintenance of effort, substitution and cost shifting often loom large and hamper service delivery. The Commission of Audit might be expected to pay some attention to them (despite its tight timelines). If the BCA’s reform agenda is any pointer to Tony Shepherd’s, thinking, as it probably does, in tertiary education there would be some strengthening of the Commonwealth’s role to create a more national approach and a more connected tertiary (higher education and VET) system. However, we live in a federation and an ambitious reform agenda of this sort will founder, in the short term, on state sensitivities. States do, after all, constitutionally “own” education and training (even higher education, including universities — but that’s another story). As a sometime state official, I am sympathetic to the argument that “if you give away everything, sooner or later you have nothing left” — and the states end up as mere agencies of the Commonwealth, but that seems to be the ineluctable trend of constitutional evolution in Australia.

Whatever the Commission of Audit recommends in this area (if it recommends anything at all) Minister Pyne would be well advised to take a longer view about the development of Australia’s tertiary sector and eschew short term budget fixes that lock out NUHEPs.

If “quality” and “standards” are the drivers of the review of the demand driven system, a reasonable approach would be to take up the proposition put by Willis and Burnheim that more resources be put into pathway, enabling, and foundation programs.

Government-supported opportunities for access to higher education at the sub-Bachelor Degree level (including Associate Degree and Other Undergraduate programs, and Enabling courses) totalled 25,482 places in 2012. This allocation of places represented just 6% of commencing undergraduate students. Enabling courses comprised two thirds (16,428) of all these government-supported access places.

The purpose of enabling courses, where participation is free and universities are paid a top-up in lieu of the student contribution, originally was stated as being “to provide a pathway to higher education for students from disadvantaged groups who do not yet have the academic preparation to enroll directly in award courses”. In 2013 the enabling loading was increased from an estimated $1,833 to $2,500 per place, and from 2014 it will increase to $3,068 per place (with the rate indexed in later years). The distribution of enabling and sub-bachelor allocated places among universities appears rather haphazard and not necessarily related to low-SES and Indigenous student enrolment shares.  Similarly, the allocation of Associate Degree places appears arbitrary. Of course, it becomes difficult to increase the number of sub-Bachelor allocated places with the cost of uncapped Bachelor places continuing to rise and with students who might benefit from such pathways being accepted directly into university undergraduate courses.

As far as I know, no Commonwealth money flows directly to NUHEPs (though some might flow through indirectly).

It turns out that there is a potential pot of money to fund an expansion of enabling/foundation programs in both the university and NUHEP sectors. The Higher Education Participation and Partnerships Program (HEPPP), aimed at assisting universities to improve access to undergraduate courses for people from low SES backgrounds, expires at the end of 2013.  The former government allocated new funding of nearly $600 million over four years, to the end of 2017, subject to passage of legislation containing the efficiency dividend.  Given the rhetoric around standards, it would be incongruous to allow the program to just expire.  The program might be redesigned somewhat to direct more funding into enabling/foundation programs, available to NUHEPs as well as universities.

In line with the recommendations of theReview of Higher Education Regulation Report, Minister Pyne has already moved to lighten the “regulatory burden” on universities. Pyne might usefully go further and initiate a reconsideration of higher education providers and institutional types.

 A concept that has some currency is that of a university college which is used in a number of countries to denote institutions that provide higher education but do not have full or independent university status, with the university college often being part of a larger university or university system.  A number of NUHEPs, have expressed interest in this concept (sometimes also referred to as a “polytechnic university”).

The rules that govern the accreditation of higher education institutions — the Higher Education Threshold Standards — carefully protect the title of “university” in any form of use — more tightly than anywhere else in the world.  Since 2007, in Australia, a “university college” is specifically defined as an institution seeking ultimate registration as a full university (within five years).  Among other things, a university college is required to provide AQF qualifications up to Masters coursework degrees in at least three broad fields of study and Research Masters and PhD or equivalent Research Doctorates in one field. It has five years to satisfy the requirements of becoming a comprehensive university (research and research training in at least three broad fields).

Ultimately, the rules that govern our system ought to reflect reality and the reality is a continuum of institutional types from “teaching intensive” to “research intensive”.

Dropping the research requirement, a university college would be a higher education teaching institution, perhaps affiliated with a comprehensive university, with its focus on scholarship rather than research in the style of a US Baccalaureate university.  Such an institution would be a convenient vehicle for collaborations and partnerships between universities, TAFEs, and private higher education providers and it would facilitate greater differentiation and diversity within the system in a number of ways.

The existence of these institutions would provide students with a wider choice of institutions — and in thin markets, perhaps provide a local choice, which is vital in terms of providing reasonable accessibility to higher education opportunities.  These institutions could also provide some relief to the Commonwealth Budget and provide students with some choice in terms of price.

The logic of the demand-driven system, as suggested by Bradley, is that Commonwealth funding follows the student regardless of the type of institution, public or private, university or NUHEP, as long as the institution satisfies accreditation and ongoing quality requirements.

Is that going to happen?  Probably not any time soon, but it is an idea whose time must surely come.



The Scan in October 2013 : Most read items

1 November 2013

LeesaWhy TAFE matters

25 October 2013  |  The insightful Leesa Wheelahan will soon be decamping the LH Martin Institute to take up the at the University of Toronto.  Here she reflects on the challenges facing the TAFE sector as a result of “VET reform”, which she suggests can only result in a greatly diminished role for TAFE, at great community and social cost….[ READ MORE ]…. 

Hockey rules out privatisation of HECS

18 October 2013     |    Treasurer Joe Hockey has  hosed down speculation that the government plans to “privatise” student debt, followingSecuritisation claims that the right to recoup loans worth about $23 billion may be “sold off” to the private sector. But education minister Christopher Pyne has since “hosed it up”….. [ READ MORE ]….

Pyne2Pyne promises easier work rights for international students

30 September 2013    |    The Abbott government will look at liberalising immigration rules, including offering easier permanent residency, to encourage more international students to come to Australia in an effort to boost Australia’s $14 billion a year.…. [READ MORE ]….

Why a minimum ATAR would improve efficiency and equityMichael Gallagher

18 October 2013    |    Mike Gallagher (executive director , Group of Eight universities), makes the case for a “re-calibration” of the demand driven system, by the imposition of a minimum ATAR for university entry.   He argues that the G08’s proposal for a minimum ATAR of 60 (now apparently in public abeyance) was never an argument for  reintroducing caps but would actually improve both equity and efficiency in the higher education system.…. [READ MORE]….

marianne-loureyNice work, if you can get it

2 October 2013    |      A former Victorian energy bureaucrat has won her company a $1 million taxpayer-funded contract to oversee TAFE reforms despite her having no experience in the education sector and without having to go through a competitive tender process. The Ombudsman has now initiated an inquiry.[READ MORE]….

Employers losing faith in training systemTAFE quals

31 July 2013    |     A  Victorian government-commissioned survey has found that employers are losing faith in the quality of training qualifications, adding more ammunition to ongoing criticism of the state’s open market for training subsidies that has led to a proliferation of private providers.[READ MORE]….

cut red tapeTEQSA’s plan to cut redtape

4 October 2013    |    The Tertiary Education Quality and Standards Agency (TEQSA) has announced details of a “reform agenda” drawing on the  Review of Higher Education Regulation  as well its own work to cut ‘red tape’; speed up regulatory decisions; strengthen risk-based regulation; acknowledge strong higher education track records; and maintain a “robust” approach…..[READ MORE]….

Australian unis suffer reputational damagethe_wur_launch_banner_2013

4 October 2013    |     Australia’s leading universities have generally gone backwards in the Times Higher Education rankings, which has been attributed to funding cuts announced by the previous government.  The University of Melbourne remains the highest ranked Australian university but fell six places from 28 to 34 while  Australian National University dropped 11 places from 37 to 48. …..[ READ MORE ]….

John DewarThe La Trobe model?

24 October 2013   |    La Trobe University vice-chancellor John Dewar has flagged a possible radical streamlining of the university’s structure in which the current five faculties would be collapsed into two super faculties.  One would house all the professional degrees, with the other combining the humanities, arts and sciences in a liberal arts faculty….[READ MORE]….

TEQSA commissioner “retired”Eric Mayne

17 October 2013    |    Education minister Christopher Pyne has not renewed the contract of lawyer Eric Mayne, one of the five commissioners who run the Tertiary Education Quality and Standards Agency, which expired on 2 October 2. The next expiry on the commission, for Dorte Kristoffersen’s contract, is not until September next year. Chief commissioner Carol Nicoll has a contract that runs to October 2016.[READ MORE]…


Holmesglen & Healthscope partner for new private hospital

 25 September 2013   |   Holmesglen Institute and private health company Healthscope are proposing to build a new private hospital at Holmesglen’s Moorabbin campus in Melbourne’s south-eastern suburbs.The project will convert an existing  conference centre into a health and education precinct, providing clinical  training  for Holmesglen’s health science students, as well as health care for local residents….[READ MORE]

ANU needs to recreate itself : Schmidt

Brian Schmidt4
…half empty?

The Canberra Times     |    20 October  2013

Nobel laureate Brian Schmidt says the Australian National University must cut student numbers and change its admissions process in order to recreate itself as a prestigious university in the style of Harvard and Oxford.

He has also called for increased funding by the federal government to ensure a change from ”pumping degrees out by the masses”.

Schmidt said the ANU had a successful past, creating ”three of Australia’s six Nobel prizes”, but there were concerns for its future.

I am concerned that we are no longer different.  We’re essentially funded exactly the same way. Our relationship with the federal government is not that different from the University of Melbourne or any other university.

He pointed out that ANU, unlike Sydney and Melbourne universities (and UQ, UWA etc), couldn’t garner financial support from large state governments in order to expand.

They can spend more money than us.  Unless we differentiate, we’ll end up as a second-class university. He said changes to ANU’s undergraduate program were needed in order to distinguish it and reverse the sliding international reputation of Australian universities.

He said ANU needs to change and he suggested that “admissions to tighten up a bit. The Australian National University, if they want to do it right, we need to interview people.”

Smaller tutorials with a maximum of 15 students were also suggested by Schmidt, who said that the proposed changes would require increased financial support from the Abbott government.

”We’re going to need support from the federal government,” he said. ”I don’t [want] the Australian National University to be a threat. The ANU needs to be helping the sector.”

Schmidt said the changes would help move the country’s higher education sector to a place where ”quite frankly, it needs to go”.

quote marksThe big problem that Australia has right now is that it doesn’t have a great university

Winds of change buffetting ANU
ANU to review tutorial phase out

The Scan | #139 | 27 September 2013


Pyne sends mixed messageagenda

27 September   2013   |   In his first interview as education minister, Christopher Pyne says his priorities are to “repair” international education, reduce red tape and review the demand-driven system.  Pyne said that international education issues would be tackled “sooner rather than later”, given the economic impact of a 20% to 25% decline in Australia’s biggest non-mining export industry. he nominated reducing universities’ regulatory load as the other high priority, guided by the recommendations of the recent review of university regulation.  Pyne said he would not be bound by the former government’s higher education policies, including its targets for attainment and inclusion and that  quality would be the prime consideration in the review of the demand-driven system…..[ READ MORE ]….

Abbott hoses down amenities fee furore

ABBOTT226 September 2013 | Prime Minister Tony Abbott has moved to calm concerns the Commonwealth Government is planning to scrap the university student amenities fee, saying there are “no plans for change in this area” as the government has a big agenda and higher priorities…..[ READ MORE ]….

Pyne hoses down caps debate

christopher-pyne26 September 2013  | Education minister Christopher Pyne is trying to hose down concerns he is planning to renege on a promise not to restore limits on university places, but says he has ordered a review because he says evidence suggests “quality is suffering to achieve quantity”. And he says there are concerns that students are not doing the right courses…..[ READ MORE ]….

Research returned to education

research225 September 2013   |   Responsibility for research policy and infrastructure will move to the education portfolio after its fleeting assignment to industry.  Education minister Christopher Pyne says this means “vice-chancellors will be able to work with one minister and one department on the crucial interaction between research excellence and teaching quality”……[ READ MORE ]….

Holmesglen & Healthscope partner for new private hospitalHolmesglen

25 September 2013  | Holmesglen Institute and private health company Healthscope are proposing to build a new private hospital at Holmesglen’s Moorabbin campus in Melbourne’s south-eastern suburbs. The project will convert an existing conference centre into a health and education precinct, providing clinical training for Holmesglen’s health science students, as well as health care for local residents……[ READ MORE ]….

Coalition plans a “drastic overhaul”

shattered pillar25 September 2013 | The Coalition promised stability as one of its “seven pillars” of higher education policy.  According to media reports of comments by education minister Christopher Pyne, this was a non-core commitment , if a commitment at all. Pyne’s comments are a direct contradiction of his unequivocal statement that while the Coalition welcomes “debate over the quality and standards in our universities, we have no plans to increase fees or cap places”. …….[ READ MORE]….

Industrial action over stalled EBA negotiationsnteu-logo

24 September 2013 | National Tertiary Education Union members at the University of Melbourne will begin a 24-hour strike from noon Wednesday 25 September, to noon Thursday 26 September while staff at James Cook University reject “monstrous double standards” over 3% pay offer…..[ READ MORE]….

Pay deals and benchmarks

Budget 224 September 2013 | Deakin University and the National Tertiary Education Union (NTEU) have provisionally agreed on terms for a new enterprise agreement. The new agreement will include a 3% annual salary increase, and a $1200 initial increase to all salary bands (pro rata for non full-time staff)….[ READ MORE ]….


The cone of silence descends

The incomparable David Rowe makes a point in the Australian Financial Review
The incomparable David Rowe makes a point in the Australian Financial Review

The difference between being in government and opposition, Tony Blair once famously said,  is that in government a minister wakes up and thinks, “what will I  do today”.  In opposition, the spokesperson wakes up and thinks, “what will I say today?”  New education minister Christopher Pyne possibly began to appreciate this difference  when his public musings  about “quantity” versus “quality” (i.e. the pros and cons of the demand driven system), which sparked the most public attention of the nascent government’s term (except for deciding not automatically announcing new boat arrivals).   It certainly inspired the likes of  cartoonist David Rowe (above) and an enormous amount of media commentary and analysis.

Prime Minister Tony Abbott has cracked down and directed that ministerial media commentary needs to be “co-ordinated” through his office – and nothing wrong with that either:  government policy does need to be subject to an approval process.  At the moment, government policy is that the demand driven system will be retained and that fees will not be increased.


 Young Australians overqualified and underemployed

FYA_HYPAF13_Web_Banner_640x340Only around one-third of VET graduates are employed in the same occupation as their field of training, according to a report by the Foundation for Young Australians.  The report shows a misalignment between the skills many young people have and the jobs that are available to them: firstly, that many young Australians are overqualified for their jobs; and secondly, that those without qualifications are finding it much harder to get a good job


ATN logoATN In Profile September 2013

Action, not Titles, will be crucial in new Abbott Ministry – ATN Universities Enjoy Further Success in World Rankings – ATN Forms Historic Asian Partnership – Business on the Agenda for Coalition Government and Universities – Recap of Coalition’s Colombo plan – ATN Achievements



2013 Eureka Awards

Eureka1The University of Melbourne together with Monash University  won this year’s University of New South Wales Eureka Prize for Scientific Research for an accidental discovery that revealed the purpose of ‘mystery’ immune cells in the gut. The study shows how our immune system interacts with the complex bacteria ecology in our gut, and opens new paths for drug discovery that could revolutionise the design of modern vaccines, improve outcomes for people suffering inflammatory bowel disease and infection and deliver new drugs to patients more safely .



Comment & analysis

TIck a box on climate  science

Tick3As Ross Gittins observed in Fairfax Media (including Pravda on  the Yarra, which proved its independence by being one of only two newspapers in the known universe to endorse the return of the Labor government – the other, strangely enough was the Economist), the Abbott government has had a disconcerting starting “to do list”:

…..sack econocrats guilty of having worked with the enemy, pass an edict against climate change and discourage all discussion of it, stop publicising boat arrivals, build more motorways, move to a cut-price national broadband network and take science for granted.

The disbanding of the Climate Commission has excited lots of comment but its sacked members have reconstituted as the Australian Climate Council, and with the support of community funding, and will volunteer their time to interpret climate science from around the globe.

There are other strong, independent and credible sources of advice and information about climate change issues, such as the Centre of ClimateExcellence for Climate System Science, which was established in 2011 with extensive investment from the Australian Research Council and comprises  the University of New South WalesMonash University, the Australian National University, The University of Melbourne, and the University of Tasmania.   It seeks to build on and improve existing understanding of the modeling of regional climates to enable enhanced adaptation to and management of climate change, particularly in the Australian region.  We can’t be absolutely sure but we don’t think even Jamie Briggs would label this “ridiculous research”.

On 27 September  2013 the 5th Assessment Report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) will be released.  Here, the Centre’s director, Professor Andy Pitman, previews the report, one part of which will address the so-called “warming hiatus”:

This is the argument that warming has stopped, with the further assertion in some quarters that we therefore have nothing to worry about in the future.

It is a fact, based on observations of air temperature, that the rate of global warming measured as surface air temperature has slowed over the past 15 years. The last decade is still the warmest in the past 150 years.

If you measure global heat content then global warming has not slowed. If you measure other indices including sea level rise or ocean temperatures or sea ice cover global warming has not slowed.

However, the warming trend in air temperatures has slowed over the last 15 years. There is a great deal of interest in this “hiatus” in the sense of whether it points to some fundamental error in climate science.



Life & stuff

A gardening tip

Plant tomatoes on Grand Final Day, not Cup Day


Ever since anyone can remember, Melbourne Cup Day – the first Tuesday in November – has been the day for gardeners to start planting tomatoes in Melbourne, when warmer overnight temperatures are more reliable.  But University of Melbourne “urban horticulturalist” Dr Chris Williams says due to climate change, AFL Grand Final Day, the last Saturday in September, should replace the time-honoured planting signpost in gardening folklore.  He says that overnight temperatures through winter into early spring have warmed over the past ten years to make Grand Final Day the new seasonal signpost for tomato planting.



Learning @work

11-13 November 2013 | Australian Technology Park, Sydney



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Pyne sends mixed message

The Australian     |      25 September 2013

agendaIn his first interview as education minister, Christopher Pyne says his priorities are to “repair” international education, reduce red tape and review the demand-driven system.

Pyne told The Australian’s Higher Education Supplement that international education issues would be tackled “sooner rather than later”, given the economic impact of a 20% to 25% decline in Australia’s biggest non-mining export industry.

I want to review the way the previous government dealt with post-study work rights and streamlining of visas.  They used a sledgehammer to break a walnut when they first came to power, and did a great deal of damage to our international education reputation by shutting down the capacity of international students to remain here post-study. Bad decisions were made around streamlining and post-study work rights, not because of a lack of recognition that they needed to be fixed but because they didn’t want to interfere with their political arguments around 457 visas.  I want to try and repair that.

Pyne  said reducing universities’ regulatory load would be the other high priority, guided by the recommendations of the recent review of university regulation.

Labor’s introduction of a national regulator, the Tertiary Education Quality and Standards Agency, had been “a good initiative, but it’s gone from being a risk-based assessment of higher education institutions into a one-size-fits-all approach”.

This is stifling creativity in the higher education system.  There’s much we can do to reduce the burden of regulation, red tape and reporting by addressing some of the issues around TEQSA.

Any changes to the demand-driven higher education system would take longer, he said.

Some people in the higher education sector believe we’re already at saturation point with the number of people that can and want to go to university. I need to get good advice about all of that.

Pyne said he would not be bound by the former government’s higher education policies, including its targets for attainment and inclusion.  But increases to HECS fees are “not even being considered”, and he backed away from previous Coalition plans to reintroduce full-fee courses for domestic undergraduates.

He said quality would be the prime consideration in the review of the demand-driven system.

You should never take your eye off quality in the higher education sector. After the US and the UK, we’re the third highest ranked country in terms of numbers of universities in the top echelons around the world, and that’s only because we have a reputation that needs to be protected. That reputation is built around quality. Buildings are important, locations are important, but quality is the key driver of reputation.

The cone of silence descends

27 September 2013

The incomparable David Rowe makes a point in the Australian Financial Review
The incomparable David Rowe makes a point in the Australian Financial Review

The difference between being in government and opposition, Tony Blair once famously said, is that in government a minister wakes up and thinks, “what will I do today”. In opposition, the spokesperson wakes up and thinks, “what will I say today?” New education minister Christopher Pyne possibly began to appreciate this difference when his public musings about “quantity” versus “quality” (i.e. the pros and cons of the demand driven system),  sparked the most public attention of the nascent government’s term (except for deciding not automatically announcing new boat arrivals).  People think that what he says may reflect what he’s going to do.

It certainly inspired the likes of cartoonist David Rowe (above) and an enormous amount of media commentary and analysis.

Prime Minister Tony Abbott has cracked down and directed that ministerial media commentary needs to be “co-ordinated” through his office – and there’s  nothing wrong with that either: government policy does need to be subject to an approval process.  At the moment, government policy is that the demand driven system will be retained and that fees will not be increased.  Even a newly minted minister can’t unilaterally rewrite the policy, particularly when the leader (now prime minister) has articulated “seven pillars” which seemingly rule these changes out.

As The Scan  archives on caps and fees show, both these issues have been the subject of contention for some time.  There’s a great divide in the university community, with the more established universities in favour of caps  and greater fee deregulation.  And then there’s the “other” universities which favour neither.

We cover all sides but, as a general rule, The Scan is with the “others”  – and  that’s not the way the tide seems to be  flowing.

It was certainly a garbled set of messages: Pyner says he’s in favour of “quality” over “quantity” and he’s reviewing the demand driven system.  But that doesn’t mean reimposing caps or a “minimum ATAR” to qualify for university entry or fiddling with fees – at least that’s what the Prime Minister has told him it doesn’t mean – for now, at least.

The Abbott government is to establish a “commission of audit’ of the Commonwealth budget, which is to report by the end of 2013, so as to inform the 2014 budget.

So we expect that’s where the action is – May 2014.

And what will the action be?

The government probably won’t formally re-impose caps – but it will come up with something to “maintain standards”.   While Christopher Pyne eschews “targets”, a minimum ATAR of 60 for year 12 students sort of matches the 40% attainment target  (although in his public musings, Pyne has ruled out resorting to minimum university entry scores).

And they will quite possibly do some variation of  what the UK’s Conservative / Liberal government did : double or triple fees,  and cut or remove altogether the government subsidy  for degrees like arts, business – indeed, anything outside the STEM courses….?

In a recent editorial, the Australian Financial Review captured the sentiment:

…Christopher Pyne is right to question whether Labor’s equity push is sustainable.  But simply going back to the Howard government’s cap on enrolments is not the right answer.

Rather than crude quotas on the number of Australians allowed into universities, he needs liberate the price universities can charge for their services.  That would send a better signal to universities about what courses to supply while better revealing what courses students value.