Elite universities call for cap on student numbers
Jun 23, 2016 | News | by The Learning Press staff
A proposal by Australia’s elite universities to re-cap student numbers has met with a heated backlash from vice-chancellors and flat rejection from the education minister.
The Group of Eight, which represents the top-ranked universities in Australia, released a paper this week calling for changes to the demand-driven system which allows institutions to enrol as many students as they want.
It follows a Government budget announcement that plans to deregulate tuition fees - which proved toxic with the electorate - have been abandoned for all but a handful of courses.
Government funding for the sector has come under increasing financial pressure since the uncapping of university places in 2012 and the subsequent explosion in student numbers - although the most recent statistics show growth to be slowing to a near standstill in 2016.
Michael Spence, Group of Eight chair and University of Sydney vice-chancellor, told Fairfax Media: “Simply enrolling more students in underfunded places is not in the best interests of the country.
“We are on track of meeting the goal of 40 per cent of young people with an undergraduate degree by 2025.
“It’s time to declare victory on university participation and focus on the core problems for university funding.”
But Greg Craven, vice-chancellor of the Australian Catholic University, accused the Group of Eight of focussing on money-making with no regard for student equity or opportunity.
“This is a group of profiteers who would do anything for their own self-interest,” he said.
“The politics of this are cancerous.”
His position was backed by Andrew Vann, vice-chancellor of Charles Sturt University, who described the idea as “selfish” and driven by the group’s desire to channel more funding into research.
The National Tertiary Education Union claims the Group of Eight’s paper anticipates ‘deregulation by stealth’ from the Government - a plan to quietly mover towards a profit-driven system.
“Clearly the Go8 has seen the writing on the wall, with the Coalition still aiming towards a US style, tiered higher education system,” said president Jeannie Rea.
“We can only conclude that the Go8 universities’ priority directions paper is more about consolidating their position at the top of the system than providing quality, affordable and accessible higher education.”
Education minister Simon Birmingham, whose party is struggling to gain any traction on education this election, quickly rejected the proposal.
“The alternative to the demand-driven system is to return to a world where Canberra bureaucracies decide what university places should be available and where,” he said.
Jan Thomas, chair of the Regional Universities Network which strongly supports the demand-driven system, argued removing caps had allowed many more students from regional, rural and low socio-economic backgrounds to attend university.
“Proportionally, there has been a 1.5 percent increase in the participation by low-SES students overall, which is progress,” she said.
“More than four to five years is needed to solve the problem.”