By Marcia Devlin
Australia is in full election campaign mode. What a returned conservative government means for higher education is a little worrying, although what a change of government means is worrying for different reasons.
Two years ago, the then federal Minister for Education, Christopher Pyne, proposed a radical set of changes for higher education funding including, among other things, a 20% cut to funding and full fee deregulation. While the latter received support from some institutions and Vice-Chancellors, there were very few supporters of the whole package. Among those who did not support it were the ‘cross-benchers’ – the independent and minor party members of the Parliament of Australia who have held the balance of power since elected in 2014 – and so the proposals were not passed.
The government have since introduced Senate voting reforms which means the minor parties will not be able to swap preferences in order to secure Senate seats as they have done in the past, and there is less likelihood of a future cross bench like this one. Which is a shame for higher education in my view as these folk actually listened to the sector and public and responded accordingly. Mr Pyne has now moved onto other responsibilities. But just before he moved, this actually happened: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Hc9NRwp6fiI
The new and current Education Minister, Simon Birmingham has released a discussion paper in lieu of budget measures: (https://www.education.gov.au/news/consultation-future-higher-education-reform). However, a former senior Education bureaucrat, Mark Warburton, has pointed out that the discussion paper includes some assumptions that were contained in Christopher Pyne’s 2014 budget, and abandons others, but is not completely clear what is in and what is out. (See the Warburton article here: http://www.themandarin.com.au/64744-the-surprise-hidden-in-the-higher-ed-discussion-paper/?pgnc=1)
As Warburton says, it appears certain that the 20% cut to student subsidies under the Commonwealth Grant Scheme (CGS) remains in the budget and that the government has also made it clear that it remains committed to Pyne’s reforms. He adds that the government have clearly announced two additions to the higher education package. The first is that there would be an additional one-year delay to the start date – until the beginning of the 2018 year. The second is removing the full deregulation of fees. But Warburton points out that the additional proposals in the minister’s discussion paper are not included or mentioned in the official budget papers. They are simply options in a discussion paper. And one of these options is the incremental introduction of fee deregulation, rather than Christopher Pyne’s proposed one-step approach.
I’m worried about about the potential impact of a 20% cut to the ability of some regional and other smaller universities to operate and, therefore, about the opportunities for regional, rural and remote students to access university education. I’m worried about the impact of fee deregulation (read: fee increases) on the participation of various ‘non-traditional’ student cohorts, either because of actual or perceived cost barriers.
But I’m also worried about the alternative (Labor) government intentions around higher education. Kim Carr has indicated that Labor will fund universities differently in the future, pointing to the importance of students completing programs of study that they start. The logical follow-through is that universities will be funded for completions, and the -get-paid-as-you-enrol-students-each year arrangement will no longer apply.
The assumption behind this sort of initiative is that universities need to stop letting students drop out. As if we do let students drop out. In fact, universities employ strategies to keep students such as: pre-enrolment advising; enabling and preparatory programs; concurrent academic support; counselling services; options to change enrolment internally with credit should a student’s original choice not be suitable; scholarships and bursaries; equipment loan schemes; financial assistance with study related costs; student-friendly approaches to administration and interaction; monitoring and responding to at-risk sub-cohorts; proactive advice provision; mentoring from experienced senior students; transition programs; staff coordinators; strategic directions from Councils; senior appointments charged with improving retention; and significant funding directed at all of these efforts.
We do our best, improving our efforts every single semester, following every piece of research and other robust evidence that guides our efforts. At my university, we trial new ways to put in place preventions and interventions and closely monitor the effects of these. Having tried as hard as we can to keep them, we ask students who finally decide to leave why they are leaving and feed that back to relevant parts of the university to drive continuous improvement. We ask students who stay what helped them to stay and succeed and feed that back to relevant parts of the university to recognise and reward efforts that work. Many other universities do the same.
But when students drop out, it is often because of demographic and/or personal factors, rather than because universities have stood by and let them fall away. Demographic factors that can contribute to the likelihood of drop out include being: part-time; mature-age; online; first year; an articulator from VET; the first in family to attend tertiary study; from a low socioeconomic status background; Indigenous; and/or a student with a disability. There are increasing numbers and proportions of these students in a massified system.
Personal factors include challenges related to students’ physical and mental health, their finances, their family responsibilities, their paid employment commitments, relationship issues they might experience and/or accidents or misadventure. And when these personal challenges intersect with demographic characteristics, the impact can be profoundly negative for the student and their study success, despite every effort by a university to assist and to encourage them to stay in study.
Punishing universities for enabling students who have the characteristics above to get a higher education seems perverse. The exclusive universities will do well and the elite will prosper. But is this really what Labour wants?
I’m worried that cuts to funding, fee hikes, funding formula changes and the absence of a cross bench who will not do deals with major parties will leave students, their families, their communities, the professions, the economy and society worse off as many are turned away from higher education and the benefits it brings.
Marcia Devlin is Deputy Vice-Chancellor (Learning and Quality) at Federation University Australia and a Fellow of SRHE.