Home | Policy & Reform | Unis erecting ‘Taj Mahals’, ‘prepared to let standards slip’: Grattan debate
L-R: Moderator Libby Hackett, Andrew Norton (on screen), Craig Emerson, and Judith Sloan. Photo: Grattan Institute

Unis erecting ‘Taj Mahals’, ‘prepared to let standards slip’: Grattan debate

Despite having worked at several of them, Judith Sloan is sceptical of universities. The conservative economist and contributing economics editor at The Australian recently told an audience that she “doesn’t trust” universities, and thinks “they’re prepared to let standards slip to put bums on seats”.

These remarks were made in the context of a Grattan Institute debate, where she was a panellist. Held in Sydney, The demand driven higher education funding system: frozen or finished? provoked conflicting views.

Underlying the discussion is the Federal government’s MYEFO measures, implemented in December 2017. They froze 2018–19 demand-driven university funding at 2017 levels. Further, the government decided that from 2020, this funding will only be indexed in line with population growth, subject to universities meeting specified performance targets.

On the left, stage and politics-wise, sat fellow panellist Craig Emerson. In freezing funding, the economist and former Labor Minister for Tertiary Education, Skills, Science and Research believes the government made a policy mistake. He likened capping university places to a Communist-type approach. In his view, the demand-driven system is achieving its aim of broadening university access for students from low socioeconomic backgrounds, so, why pause it?

When he represented the Logan City electorate, he witnessed the system’s potential, first-hand. Logan, south of Brisbane, is home to many disadvantaged kids, particularly from Pacific Islander backgrounds. “It wasn’t unusual to see families with eight kids,” Emerson said. This meant kids’ home lives were often noisy and chaotic, potentially disrupting their school study schedules and their sleep. Resultant poor ATARS shouldn’t bar them from a second chance at education, at university, he posited, and scrapping the demand-driven system will do just this.

Sloan answered: the demand-driven system may be achieving this aim, but it’s all for nothing. Universities are selling these students “puff”, as the students tend to have lower ATAR scores, and in turn, research shows they are more likely to drop out of university. As a Professor of Labour Studies at Flinders University, she divulged that she even used to ask some of her students why they were there.

What’s more, with the dilution of degrees due to more students (not to mention the economic downturn) “the returns of a university education have gone down significantly in terms of employment and salaries”. Besides, the brightest kids from low socioeconomic backgrounds will enter university in any case; this is what the HECS system was designed for.

Emerson countered this claim: “I don’t think there’s any basis to say the brightest kids from poor backgrounds get into university anyway.

“This is where you get entrenched privilege and disadvantage. If the mum has been to university, the chance of the child going to university is very high.”

VET killer?

Nonetheless, another issue Sloan raised is that the demand-driven system is “killing off” the VET sector. Ironically, the students that are being failed by the demand-driven system are the same ones that would benefit from a vocational education. She says many of them would be better suited to careers in areas like aged care and childcare, but are increasingly denied opportunities to pursue them due to the VET sector’s decline.

Andrew Norton, the higher education program director at the Grattan Institute and also the third panellist, agreed with Sloan on this point. But, he noted that only men tend to gain financially from trade careers. Somewhat straddling the demand-driven fence, he pronounced he was against the re-capping of university places, but thought students need better advice on whether they should pursue a university or vocational path.

Following that, Sloan seemed to back-peddle slightly: “What these [disadvantaged] kids really need is a stepping stone [between school and university degrees]. As I understand it, the [pre-demand-driven freeze] funding was very hostile to those stepping stone programs.”

Wastage or money well-spent?

When it came to money, however, Sloan and Emerson were once again at loggerheads. Sloan laid down the fiscal gauntlet with the words: “OK, I’m going to make myself really unpopular.” She argued that universities spend much of their demand-driven funding on ostentatious frivolities. “There are Taj Mahals everywhere,” she exclaimed. She further mentioned that the average Vice-Chancellor now earns close to $1 million a year, and their contemporaries don’t earn much less. “I look at those titles [like Pro and Deputy Vice-Chancellor] and I wonder what they do.” Referring to attrition as “playing around”, she said she wouldn’t mind this so much if students were doing it more on their own coin. “The estimates on unpaid debt … are really scary. We’re talking billions of dollars.”

Emerson acknowledged that government funding has expanded exponentially with the introduction of the demand driven system: from $4 to $7 billion. While dodging Sloan’s managerial wastage claims, he took issue with the assertion that money spent on attrition is money squandered. “Is it a disaster if someone goes to uni and doesn’t complete a degree?,” he rhetorically asked. He thinks not. He suggested that university is a “civilising experience” that inculcates life skills and benefits in students – whether they attend for one or three years. For example, domestic violence rates are lower in more educated families. For him, spending for these sorts of outcomes is a high priority.

Remote possibilities

Sloan would like no mercy shown to universities in regional areas, which some say particularly benefit from the demand-driven system. To support her stance, she observed that most of the universities that have seen the largest student population increases, like Melbourne’s Swinburne University – aren’t in regional areas.

Grattan’s Norton addressed each of her points in turn. First, he drew the distinction between regional students and regional universities. Many regional students in fact choose to attend metropolitan campuses, and if the demand-driven system is about meeting students’ interests, then in this sense, it’s working. Second, he highlighted the difficulty of restricting demand-driven funding to a certain class of attrition-resistant university: there’s uncertainty about who to enroll. “The only low risk students are young men with high ATARs, enrolling in professional degrees,” he declared.

“If we adopted this metric, it would take us back many decades.”

For now, government policy accords with Sloan’s views. If there’s a change in leadership, however, Emerson will be triumphant. At the Universities Australia conference earlier this month, Tanya Plibersek, deputy Labor leader and opposition education spokeswoman, told the audience that Labor, if elected, will defrost the government’s demand-driven funding freeze. “Under Labor, we were proud that we oversaw an increase of 190,000 students, many of whom were the first in their family to go to university.

“That’s why Labor is absolutely committed to the demand-driven system. And we won’t walk away from it.”

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One comment

  1. This is such a complex issue. I have been in the University sector for some 30 years as a humble lecturer at a regional campus. When I heard about Vice Chancellors getting million dollar salaries, I was utterly shocked and dismayed. I can recall a time when Universities were about good public service and turning out people with high quality education in both the arts and the sciences.
    Even though I tend not to support conservative economic theories, I actually agree with Judith Sloan. It is the VET system that needs real support not the Universities.
    I am so lucky that I have had a decent job in this sector for so long, but I am glad that I soon will be retiring. Its full of overpaid puffed up managers that have lost the plot and the core focus is just making money, standards have definitely slipped just to get more students in the city campuses.
    The regional campuses are being killed off by the removal of the caps.

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