Go8 chief says demand-driven system damaging the brand of Australian higher education
Aug 01, 2016 | News | by The Learning Press staff
Australia’s demand-driven university system is devaluing degrees, cheapening vocational study and lumbering graduates with “broken dreams and a large student debt”, according to the head of the prestigious Group of Eight university alliance.
Vicki Thompson, director of the group representing Australia’s top research universities, called for an overhaul of higher education in a contentious speech to the Employability and Industry Partnerships Forum this week.
She argued the Gillard Government’s 2012 policy of allowing universities to enrol as many students as they want has both diminished the value of higher education and created the misconception that anyone without a degree is a failure.
“At present the unintended consequences of the demand driven system have skewed both entry and end results,” she said.
“They have affected the sector’s brand health. They let have down many graduates.
“They have let down those who feel forced to consider university or be labelled a failure.
“They have let down the economy by reducing the value of vocational study, and allowing sub-bachelor contributions to wither.
“There are areas of significant oversupply of graduates….. graduates with broken dreams and a large student debt.
“In this fast changing world where universities are at the mercy of policy stalemate, it is surely time to face facts and act on them.”
Ms Thompson says Australia is in danger of turning universities into degree “factories”, churning out narrowly-qualified graduates into an oversupplied and speedily-evolving jobs market.
And she has refuted the Coalition’s focus on industry-driven study, saying employers are expecting universities to operate as if they are churning out commodities, rather than fostering innovation and flexibility.
“Shouldn’t the sector’s role be to recognise and adjust to the changing dynamics of the time in which we operate?” she said.
“In the midst of the frenetic economic pace of this newish century, shouldn’t our graduates be employable more generally, more so than specifically?
“Wouldn’t we be letting our graduates down if we did not educate them in ways that assisted them either outside of the discipline they studied, or to make a rewarding life for themselves as self-employed?
“The Go8 would contend that universities should always be far more than a degree factory, labelled as such within the narrow context of teaching specific skills.
“That is surely not our role. That is not who we are.”
Last year, the Sydney Morning Herald revealed that universities across the nation were routinely admitting students with scores well below specified minimum entry requirements in their efforts to fill courses.
NSW education minister Adrian Piccoli is a vocal advocate for the re-capping of some courses, particularly teaching and nursing, saying deregulation has caused a fall in the quality of graduates and describing students as “cash cows” for universities.
But Australian Catholic University vice-chancellor Greg Craven, one of a number of academics supportive of the demand-driven system, has branding Mr Piccoli elitist and says the system had created an opportunity for many more disadvantaged Australians to enjoy a university education.
Ms Thomson says some employers are now asking for university degrees for jobs such as a personal assistant or admin co-ordinator which, until recently, required a TAFE qualification.
"Suggesting a degree for a position that may not need one is an uncomfortable trend that risks diminishing a university education and sends concerning signals to job seekers," she said.
"This is not being elitist, it is simply fact.
"Why are we all so reticent about stating the obvious - that university isn't for everyone.
"We should be encouraging vocational study, not allowing it to be seen as a consolation prize.
"I doubt it was ever intended that the demand-driven system would set up society to consider the lack of a degree as a failure, but that is what has been occurring."
Ms Thomson acknowledges that while it is "gratifying and exciting" that almost 40 per cent of Australians aged 25 to 34 have an undergraduate degree, failure to put checks on enrolments has created the perception that the achievement is “no longer special”.