At the Australian Financial Review Higher Education Summit in Melbourne yesterday, I took part in the lead panel, “Choice, Outcomes and Sustainability: a Report Card on the Higher Education System.” Grattan Institute higher education program director Andrew Norton, chairing the panel, described the Demand Driven System as “an experiment, perhaps the most ambitious equity policy agenda in the history of Australian higher education”, and asked if the panel thought it was working.
Unlike another speaker, who gave the DDS brilliant marks, I described its outcomes as only very muted. When increased graduate numbers from skilled immigration are removed, the lift in overall participation in higher education has been well short of the 40% target. But most important, the aim of lifting participation by disadvantaged groups to 20% of university enrolment is nowhere near achieved: over the five years of the DDS (since 2012) participation by the low SES cohort has lifted less than 1%. The System had led to an explosive expansion of higher education costs to the Commonwealth, for fairly limited gain: in my view, far more could have been done for disadvantaged groups and far more efficiently in other ways.
Simply leaving the campus gate open to unlimited enrolments was never going to be enough to drive in the disadvantaged. We need to sow the seeds of aspiration for university study in primary and secondary schools, and then support preparation of those with the ability to succeed.
I told my own story, as son of a farmer who left school at 14 and had no ambitions that any of his children would go to university. It was being tested in year 10 and awarded one of the old Commonwealth Secondary Scholarships that first gave me the glimmer of an idea that perhaps I should stay at school until year 12 and think about university. In my view, programs in schools, such as scholarships or the HEPPP schemes, are a better and lower-cost way of stimulating increased participation in university study by disadvantaged groups.
Asked if I had a 10% increase in funding, what would I do with it, I first noted that, hopefully, such an increase would come with reformed cluster funding formulae, that would sort out the illogicality of the present arrangements, where business and law students pay too much and fund the education of medicine, dentistry and vet science students, who pay too little. But that aside, I would put the 10% back into research operations, which have been progressively starved by the $6 billion in cuts by governments over the last five years.