18 December 2008: Australian Catholic University (ACU National) Vice-Chancellor, Professor Greg Craven, comments on the Review of Australian Higher Education report, led by Professor Denise Bradley. This article appeared in The Age on Thursday 18 December 2008.
As a major operation on the prone body of Australian universities, the Bradley Review passes the first test of cardiac surgery. It has its heart in the right place. This is not a report obsessed with ivory spires, world rankings and vice-chancellors’ egos. Instead, it is firmly focused on two things that really matter.
First, it drips with a conviction that higher education is about social equity and that every qualified Australian should have their day in the lecture theatre. Second, it decisively dismisses the fantasy that Australian higher education should be all about producing one or two Harvards of the south. To Bradley, what matters is a quality system composed of quality universities.
Of course, these two basic policy settings come with a glorious topping of foreshadowed largesse from the Commonwealth. Even vice-chancellors unimpressed with the lesson may well be consoled by the loot, if it eventuates.
So far, so good. But as with every major policy proposal, the real issues lie not in the principle, but in the detail and the implementation. In its hundreds of packed pages, Bradley has more detail than the average centipede. The biggest, juiciest detail is Bradley’s proposal for a student learning entitlement, often referred to as a “voucher” system. The idea is that every student qualified for university entry would bring to the institution of his or her choice Commonwealth funding to pay their way.
In due course, Bradley anticipates this system expanding from public universities into private institutions and VET providers. The effect would be a unified system of higher education where student demand largely determined educational provision and institutional operation. Critically, such a system would deregulate the provision of university places. At present, universities effectively are allocated places for which students apply.
Under Bradley, institutions would be assured only of those places for which they had ready applicants. No applicant would mean no places and, ultimately, no money.
The fundamental question is what such a radical shift in university funding would mean on the ground? On the face of it, an economist might suggest it would produce hyper-competition between institutions as they scrabbled to secure early supply lines, with all the customary benefits and problems this typically involves.
On the other hand, as noted in the report, Australian universities currently have the right to over-enrol by five per cent, but few actually do. So the real market effect of a learning entitlement might be negligible. There is some evidence that both Bradley and the departmental bureaucrats are repeating this assumption – in an effort to dampen concerns over the “free marketisation” of university education in Australia.
Their confidence may be well placed. Another view, however, is that the outcomes of Bradley’s proposal are not easily predictable. The starting point in critiquing the voucher proposal must be that there is something highly attractive about the notion of a student learning entitlement. Why shouldn’t qualified students go to the institution they desire, rather than one that happens to have vacant, centrally allocated spaces?
After all, Bradley is not proposing a full voucher system as desired by some sandstone universities, where “elite” institutions could charge substantial uplift fees on top of a standard charge. The sort of equity difficulties this raises, therefore, are not in play.
Once again the difficulty lies in the detail and the predictability of the new system. What exactly will both top and near-top players do with their new flexibility? Will they really ignore it on the basis they already have enough students, or will they use it to raid their more vulnerable neighbours to reap the benefits of institutional agglomeration?
This will not be a choice only for the Group of Eight – every university with a marginally more vulnerable neighbour will at least ponder the joys of rapacity.
Who would be the winners and losers in such a process? Again, it is hard to say. Certainly, regional universities and lower-prestige, outer-metropolitan universities could be vulnerable, particularly to high second-tier institutions with the capacity to attract students but without the desire of more elite universities to remain “exclusive”.
Inevitably, this would create significant problems for the Rudd Government. Particularly in the case of the regionals, dead or dying universities are not a natural conduit to electoral success.
One natural response to this must be “Who cares?” If a group of desirable universities monsters a group of less desirable universities, surely that simply is the market speaking.
One complication is that higher education is, counter-intuitively, a notoriously unsophisticated market. Student choice is made far more often on the basis of dubious assumptions as to brand than we care to admit, with the result that a voucher system may do less to advance quality than to reward established market profile.
Indeed, it may actually impact negatively on quality. In many cases around the country, the innovative, industry-engaged, imaginatively taught courses are to be found in “second-tier” institutions. Yet despite their quality, their viability is assured only by the limited number of places in the corresponding sandstone. Create a free market in places, and these courses will be critically exposed.
The extreme vulnerability of some Australian universities also needs to be understood. It would not take a nuclear strike to destabilise them. A simple nudge from something like vouchers could do the trick.
None of this is to say that the learning entitlement ultimately will not prove a good idea in what undoubtedly has been a very good review. But it is to remind ourselves that predictability is a cardinal virtue, both in racehorses and policy.
Greg Craven is vice-chancellor of the Australian Catholic University.