| Funding, Media Releases, Students

Productivity Commission report on demand driven funding: IRU response

The Innovative Research Universities (IRU) network has set out its full response to the Productivity Commission report on university demand driven funding.

The IRU says the major outcome from the report is that it highlights the important links from schooling to university as one part of tertiary education and training.

However, the IRU points out that university education is not just for school leavers, and by missing mature students from the data, the report only covers around two-thirds of the demand driven system.

The IRU has also restated its challenge for Commonwealth and State-Territory governments to work with universities and other providers to create a tertiary system for the 2020s, as outlined in the IRU’s November 2018 discussion paper, Towards a Tertiary Future.

Full IRU response to the Productivity Commission report:

The Productivity Commission report confirms that the system succeeded in meeting the pent-up demand for university education and reduced some of the gaps in university attainment by people from under-represented groups.

The report highlights the challenges from opening up university to all who aspire to it to ensure that they receive the education they need. Much remains to be done.

The Commission rightly points universities and the Government to the need to ensure that tertiary education works well, not ‘solve’ problems of mass higher education by shrinking back to a past world: “the long-run pressure will be to continue to increase the size of the sector given that the historical shift towards jobs requiring complex cognitive skills is unlikely to abate” (p15).

The transition from school to university

Highlighting the important links from schooling to university as one part of tertiary education and training is the major outcome from the report.

Universities have to work well to cater for all the students they attract. That is the reality of being a major part of the education system, providing the final qualifications for half the future workforce.

The Commission is concerned that literacy and numeracy levels for school leavers have dropped, meaning that all entrants to university are likely to be that much less prepared.  When students reach essential thresholds of knowledge and capability they are better positioned for university and other tertiary providers to build on those foundations.

The Commission highlights the challenge of working with students who display different levels of school achievement. When some students emerge from schools less prepared than others they carry that gap to their following university or TAFE course.

To assist universities and other tertiary providers, school systems should be explicit about the learning outcomes and capabilities of students to provide a stronger basis for the transition to subsequent tertiary study and training.

University education is not just for school leavers

The major weakness of the Commission’s report is that it is about two thirds of the demand driven system only. It analyses those who go to university in the first one or two years after school. IRU members have always catered to a much broader group, leading to many older people gaining a degree.

This shows in the analysis of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students. We know that the number of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students has increased greatly since 2009, yet the Commission observes little change in its data.

Demand driven funding changed university education for all

The focus at comparing the students the Commission thinks would have gone to university under the previous capped system with those who went because of the extra places ignores the changes that occurred for both sets of students.

As the IRU has set out many times the greatest growth in graduates was in the health professions and sciences and technologies. Casual claims of creating lots of extra lawyers have no base in the data. This change appears to be as relevant for those who would have gone to university anyway as well as the additional students.  It shows a long-term potential shift in the balance of graduates – that may now be under threat.

The challenge of under-represented groups

The Commission’s report again confirms that much remains to be done to achieve access to a university degree based on capacity and interest, over factors of background and location.  Universities know this well, with most active in response. The report confirms both progress and remaining gaps. Whether the gaps will shrink further under a system of Ministerial funding controls is a decision Mr Tehan will make.

Access from rural and remote areas has not improved. Access to a place is not sufficient alone. The students’ financial challenge remains the hurdle. The desire for higher education may also be lower, putting pressure to ensure sufficient vocational education.

Higher education and vocational education

The Commission echoes concerns that a weak VET system pushed too many people into higher education as the only option worth trusting. There may be something to that concern – where one system is working well it will attract those who doubt the other.

However, the Commission’s analysis indicates that many of those attracted to higher education knew what they were doing. 30% of the additional students had prior VET experience, against 10% of the ‘other’ students. This suggests those students were aware of VET opportunities and wanted higher education to follow.  Demand driven strengthened the pathways between the sectors.

We also know that there is higher take up of university for young women with mid to low ATARs compared with young men. The Commission data suggests this was less apparent among the additional students. To support choice effectively the reason for different take up of VET and higher education need to be better known, not necessarily to change the outcome but to support individuals pursue what is best for them.

It is now the challenge of Commonwealth and State-Territory Governments to work with the universities and other providers to create a tertiary system for the 2020s that will work to ensure each person gets the education and training they need.

| Funding

IRU comment piece in The Australian

IRU’s Executive Director Conor King has a comment piece in the Higher Education section of today’s edition of The Australian, reflecting on six years of Coalition government budgets.

The full published text of the article is below – or you can read online at The Australian ($).

Non-medical research loses again

Across six budgets from 2014 to this year, the Coalition government consistently has driven higher education and research policy from the perspective of fiscal restraint. However, by its own measures it has failed to achieve the fiscal reductions it wanted.

It is no surprise that higher education and research are not among the areas for additional investment now that Josh Frydenberg is projecting surpluses.

By contrast, Labor essentially has held to its argument that education and research are investments that more than offset the ­initial cost. Under Labor’s plans, universities will have to argue for what is needed to optimise the ­return, but it is very different focus.

The coming election will determine which of these approaches will guide higher education for the coming half decade.

In this light, the additional impact of this year’s budget on the higher education sector is small, since its decisions only build on previous changes. The one new theme is support for regional higher education, and even then the announcements were made in ­advance. All that was left was for the budget to confirm where the funding was coming from.

To assess the Coalition’s impact involves working through its approach across six budgets.

The most obvious fiscal challenge created by higher education was the large growth in student numbers in the early 2010s. This had largely ceased when the Coali­tion government was elected in late 2013, but the image of out-of-control expansion drove the initial response.

From the 2014 budget to the end of 2017, the government sought a major reduction in the Commonwealth Grant Scheme, proposing three different plans, until finally resorting to a funding cap, university by university.

As expected, this year’s budget did not alter the plan for minor ­increases in the caps from 2020. It does mean that if the Coalition is re-elected its minister will have to work out how to cope with the surge in the school-leaver cohort from 2021. If the minister continues to set funding limits, they will soon learn again what it is for constituents and their children to miss out on university places.

The impact on research has been less obvious but more palpable. Australian Research Council funds reached their peak in 2014 and have fallen since as ­various programs have reached their end point with little new to replace them. This trend is continuing.

One of the brighter Coalition moments was the National Innovation and Science Agenda of the 2016 budget, though no mark II plan was ever delivered.

The Watt review of the research block grants was intended to promote this, yet the extra money proposed has not arrived. Instead the programs have been cut from this year, in part to pay for the regional initiatives.

Medical research has had a better fate, as is often the way with the Coalition. National Health and Medical Research Council funding has been constant and the Medical Research Future Fund is starting to allocate substantial funds. This in itself risks unbal­ancing the research effort, however, unless the much-called-for “non-medical research future fund” is also created.

Infrastructure provides a more complex case. More than $3 billion left in the Education Investment Fund has sat unused. The government is now at its third ­alternative for this money: initially it was to be redirected to state-based infrastructure, then to support recurrent National Disability Insurance Scheme costs, and now to create the emergency response fund — an emergency lump of funds indeed. So far each has failed to gain the legislative permission required to transfer the funds. But the message is clear — those funds are not for universities if the Coalition controls them.

Yet the major gain from last year’s budget was the research ­infrastructure funding of $2.2bn through to 2028. This followed a period of a half-decade without investment in new facilities. Allocating additional money, rather than using the EIF, is one of those political decisions that bamboozles.

Steadily, across many areas, the government has pared back smaller programs, sometimes pushing them out of existence.

Support for international mobility is one such case. Julie Bishop, as foreign minister, created the New Colombo Plan, which has settled at its ongoing funding level — one that cannot support the aim of a being a life-changing experience for most students.

Last year’s budget seriously cut the Endeavour program that has supported mobility for a wide range of people, not just undergraduates and not just to Asia. This year this program was killed off completely in return for the scholarships for students to study in regional areas.

The projected surpluses makes clear that the argument for containment is past. That does not mean an open book, but if the Coalition is returned it should take the opportunity to rethink how it will control funding for student education across the 2020s and ensure it supports Australia’s high-quality research system.

Conor King is executive director of the Innovative Research Universities group.