The Australian government, still the major funding agent of higher education, (although much less so than was the case 20 years ago) has an ambitious agenda. The government wants to raise the proportion of Australians with at least a first degree from the current ratio of around 32% (for those aged between 25 and 34 years) to 40% by 2025. Part of a wider agenda is to widen access to higher education for marginalised socio-economic groups, including the poor, rural and remote populations, and indigenous students. It has been estimated that the reform would boost the number of graduates by around 217,000.
This laudable ambition comes on top of a significant injection of funds to higher education, with the incoming Rudd government having promised around A$5.4 billion to higher education and R&D in 2009. Almost unique among OECD member nations, Australia escaped the recession that the global financial crisis inflicted on developed economies and is continuing to grow. Events of recent months have changed the financial outlook somewhat. Devastating floods in Queensland, and to a lesser extent in other states. The unprecedented rise in the Australian dollar (now at US$1.05) has had consequences for the competitiveness of Australian universities relative to the USA and the UK, as well as some other host nations. Uncertain signals from the Chinese economy, currently battling inflation, make the economic future look less rosy. Under such circumstances, the forthcoming federal budget, faces difficulties ahead with likely cuts to medical research, among a number of other areas.
But the likely outcomes of a policy shift to dramatically expand access are worth asking, particularly in light of trends in Australian higher education during the recent decades, and specifically, in terms of what we know about the outcomes of gaining a degree.
For economists, the benefits of higher education are measured according to two key outcomes—greater income over the life course (the so-called individual rate of return) and better employment outcomes. These findings remain consistent in different social settings, albeit to differing extents, and certainly make earning a degree attractive. But, if participation is to be increased by 25% over the coming decade and a half, is there a risk that the employment and income margin conventionally attributed to gaining a degree might be lessened, perhaps significantly?
The second argument for increasing the number of Australians earning a first degree is the broader impact of an educated population. A larger proportion of the population with higher education is often associated with a more informed, more engaged, more critically aware citizenry. The benefits of extending higher education to historically marginalized groups are particularly important, arguably leading to a denser and more diverse civil society.
But has the government really thought through the practical implications of widening access? Several elements are cause for doubt. If the objective is a more informed citizenry, including a higher proportion of marginalized elements of the population, then one must consider the possibility that there will be increased costs. Historically marginalized groups may need greater support to complete degree study, requiring improved staff: student ratios. In fact ratios have declined from 1:14 in 1994 to about 1:21 currently, with little indication that Improvements will be made during the coming years. Secondly, academic salaries have declined and workloads increased over the same period, so that it is becoming more difficult to recruit high quality teacher-researchers, as the profession is seen to be less attractive. This difficulty will only grow as the current generation of senior faculty retires over the next few years. Lastly, as several Vice Chancellors have pointed out, reaching the government’s ambitious target enrollment would necessitate the equivalent of perhaps 6-8 new universities or massively expanding existing institutions, a number of which have no room to expand given their cramped urban locations. Space is not the only consideration – would funding for the considerable expansion of existing facilities be made available?
Given this scenario, it is likely that expanding access will only occur at the cost of diminished quality, and that the more diverse and marginal populations (the poor, rural students, and indigenous groups) will not get the support they need to succeed.