Higher Education: Never mind the quality, feel the width.

2013-04-24 04.49.50 amNICK CATER

Published in The Australian, January 7, 2014

HOW many dreams of Olympic glory have been shattered by the ludicrously restrictive admissions policy of the Australian Institute of Sport?

The unmet demand for Australian gold medals at the 2012 Games frustrated the patriotic sporting public, yet millions of coodabeen champions who would have willingly graced that podium were never given a chance.

The demand-driven funding model for higher education introduced by the Gillard administration stopped short of including the Australian Sports Commission, where a somewhat unfashionable notion of excellence still prevails.

Neither did it include medicine, another field in which the high cost of educating the individual acts as a natural break on supply.

For everything else on the curriculum, however, it is to some degree a buyers’ market in which the supply of undergraduate places is theoretically unlimited.

The descent of higher learning into a branch of mere consumerism is complete, thanks to the Higher Education Support Amendment (Demand Driven Funding System and Other Measures) Act 2011.

The university serves up tempting fare and students line up at the cafeteria of higher learning.

Universities are in danger of becoming zero economic gravity chambers in which the natural laws of supply and demand are distorted.

At the front end, the number of students with the intellectual ability to benefit from university is limited. At the back end the supply of graduate jobs is finite.

In the middle, however, is a nirvana of inclusiveness in which every player gets a prize.

Throughput is what matters most to the cloistered entrepreneurs of our modern universities, which suits the narcissistic spirit of the times in which the right to “pursue your dreams” has been de-coupled from the obligation to apply oneself.

Labor’s open-door admissions policy was designed to ensure that 40 per cent of 25-34 year olds have a bachelor’s degree or higher qualification by 2025, an idea floated in Denise Bradley’s 2008 review of higher education.

In opposition, the Coalition overcame its reservations to support Bradley’s Panglossian target on the grounds that it was an attempt at least at deregulation.

The economic, social and intellectual arguments for removing the cap on university places were, to put it mildly, flimsy.

An open-ended commitment to subsidise places by up to $19,500 a year, no matter how many punters come through the turnstile, makes it impossible to calculate the imposition on future budgets.

And for what? The expansionists have been allowed to get away with the argument that there is an automatic link between educational credentials and productivity, and therefore that the way to ensure future prosperity was to print more university degrees.

In 2008, Access Economics predicted that demand for graduates in the jobs market would exceed supply by 2010 unless more young people could be lured to enrol.

Indeed, there is a shortage in particular professions, but elsewhere the oversupply of graduates continues unabated.

A 2012 study by Alfred Michael Dockery and Paul W. Miller from Curtin University found that one in 10 graduates worked in positions for which they were over-qualified. Over-education was particularly rife among young professionals and clerical employees.

In the US, after decades of expansion in college education, there is talk of a higher education bubble.

Buyers use cheap credit to buy a credential they think will make them rich, and the product grows more elaborate and more expensive. Yet when the inevitable glut of bachelor’s degrees results in credential deflation, new customers fall away and the bubble bursts.

“Right now,” wrote Glenn Harlan Reynolds in his 2012 book The Higher Education Bubble, “a college degree is an expensive signifier that its holder has a basic ability to show up on time.”

Yet the benighted doctrine of inclusiveness demands that no applicant be turned away. The Whitlamite fantasy of higher education as a socioeconomic escalator that carries the sons and daughters of peasants to the executive floor refuses to die, while the socioonomic profile of graduates has changed little. Whitlam’s big-hearted-Arthur approach to higher education had another negative consequence rarely acknowledged: an increase in the failure and dropout rate.

At the start of the 1970s, some 34 per cent of students who enrolled would leave empty-handed; by the end of the decade the rate had risen to 40 per cent.

That would not be allowed to happen these days, of course. Pass marks can be quietly reviewed, academic expectations lowered, and students mollycoddled, for universities no longer cater for scholars, they cater for customers.

A university’s reputation cannot survive on sophistry for long. Eventually potential customers twig that quality has been sacrificed for quantity and that the good name of the institution has been debased.

Such a perception is fatal in the international market, where prestige and ranking matter most.

The task of finding a way out of this reputational death-spiral has been given to David Kemp and Andrew Norton, who have been asked to review the demand funding model and report back to Education Minister Christopher Pyne early this year.

The Kemp and Norton review is unlikely to recommend a return to government-imposed admission caps, but it will be searching for a funding arrangement that restores the notion of excellence by rewarding results rather than enrolments.

It is also likely to consider how to correct the anomaly in the Gillard funding model that offered open-ended funding for universities but not for TAFEs, skewing the post-school education market in favour of abstract learning and against practical skills.

Many still rue the day that Labor’s John Dawkins decided to amalgamate colleges of advanced education into new universities, and while the egg cannot be unscrambled there are encouraging signs that the partial deregulation of funding of universities is providing a solution.

TAFEs and universities are working together to provide dual-track qualifications, offering students the chance to get industry experience and learn practical skills before committing to a three or four-year degree course.

A diploma of building at Sunshine Coast TAFE will offer credits towards a degree in urban management at Queensland University of Technology, throwing up the intriguing possibility that graduates may emerge from university with the ability to do something practical with their hands. That would be progress.