05/05/2014 - 12:37

Learning the new order for universities

05/05/2014 - 12:37


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SPECIAL REPORT: Proposed reforms represent new opportunities for a range of players within the tertiary education sector.

QUALITY: Celia Hammond says the reforms will make distinctions between public and private institutions less applicable. Photo: Bohdan Warchomij

Proposed reforms represent new opportunities for a range of players within the tertiary education sector.

When the former Labor government introduced the demand-driven system in 2012, it was touted as a means of increasing access to tertiary education while giving universities the freedom to determine how many undergraduate places they wished to offer.

Two years on, the early results are positive: access has improved for students, according to the government-commissioned Kemp-Norton review, and universities have been forced to innovate to compete for student enrolments.

However, evidence suggests the system has also left some students struggling to adjust to the rigours of tertiary study.

The proportion of new undergraduates with an Australian Tertiary Admissions Rank of less than 50 more than doubled in the five years to 2012, according to the Kemp-Norton review.

While that cohort of students still represents a relatively small proportion of the overall student body, the attrition rate for that group was almost 24 per cent in 2011 compared to just 3.3 per cent for the highest-scoring cohort of school leavers.

In order to address this issue, the Kemp-Norton review recommended Commonwealth funding be extended to private and non-university providers of sub-bachelor courses, including university preparation courses and diplomas.

The proposal reflects a broader theme within the report of expanding new opportunities to public universities, private providers and non-university providers.

The review gives in-principle support to enabling public universities to opt out of the Commonwealth-supported system and set full fees for selected high-demand courses, such as law and business.

It also recommends extending Commonwealth-supported undergraduate places to private universities as a way to further encourage competition for student enrolments.

Almost half of The University of Notre Dame Australia’s students are already on Commonwealth-supported places but vice-chancellor Celia Hammond told Business News the university could lift that proportion as high as 80 per cent if the reforms are implemented.

“The proportion of funding for our students that we get from the government is actually higher than some so-called public universities,” Professor Hammond said.

“That old dichotomy between something being a public university and something being a private university just because of whether they get government funding for their students is no longer really applicable and the Kemp-Norton recommendations, by opening it up, would make it even less applicable.”

Professor Hammond said that in a number of Notre Dame’s courses, the university received less revenue from fee-paying places than from Commonwealth-supported places.

“As long as providers meet quality standards and can provide quality education to students, they should have access to some sort of supported places for students to be able to choose to go to those institutions,” she said.

“Students who go into education are far more educated these days about where they can go. If they don’t like something and if they’re not satisfied, they can move and they do move.

“The more competition there is, up to a point I guess, the more standards will increase.”

Listed international education group Navitas stands to potentially benefit from the proposed extension of Commonwealth funding to sub-bachelor courses.

Navitas chief executive Rod Jones said the company’s pathway programs provided an environment where students received an extra level of support, including smaller classes and extra teaching hours for those who required it.

“For students who are borderline in terms of university entry … this is the right sort of approach to giving them what they need to successfully transition from where they’ve come from, which is a fairly disciplined secondary school environment, into the more open university environment,” Mr Jones told Business News.

While individual universities who spoke to Business News expressed support for the change, lobby group Universities Australia described it as a “a policy high-wire act which, if not properly controlled, could endanger the hard-won reputation of the Australian higher education sector”.

Mr Jones pointed out that Navitas would be subject to regulatory controls from the recently established Tertiary Education Quality and Standards Agency and said the company had an incentive to ensure it delivered quality results for universities.

“Universities review everything we do and moderate all the results so there’s no question that the performance of these students is equally as good as the students going through mainstream university in their first year,” he said.

“The last thing we would ever want to do is compromise on the quality and standards of what we deliver because that would be a major negative for the business.”


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