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If we're worried about quality higher education, why focus on quantity?

By Rachel Hills - posted Tuesday, 16 December 2003


In all the debate surrounding the Coalition’s proposed reforms to higher education, projected impacts on equity and accessibility have dominated at the expense of an informed consideration of the reforms’ impacts on quality.

It’s not that no one’s noticed that our universities aren’t performing as well as they could be. Everyone from Rupert Murdoch to Brendan Nelson has voiced concern about Australia’s lack of "world class" educational institutions and the fact that only two Australian universities are listed among the world’s top 100.

It’s that no one seems to have picked up on the fact that while the reforms may create additional university places (most of which will go to students with the financial means to pay full fees), the education students receive once they get there is likely to take a turn for the worse. Ensuring quality higher education for a greater proportion of our citizens isn’t just a question of increasing funding, it’s a question of increasing funding in ways that won’t impact upon academic independence and autonomy.

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The treatment of education as a commodity has already seen a decline in academic standards at Australian universities. A recent study by Australian National University professors Don Anderson, Richard Johnson and Lawrence Saha, which included interviews with more than 2000 academics, found that more than half of those surveyed believed that graduation standards had fallen over the past decade, with 18 per cent believing standards had “decreased greatly” - a finding which comes as little surprise when the rhetoric underpinnings of the higher education debate are considered.

Capitalism is founded on the expectation that consumers will “get what they pay for”. When the cost of higher education lies with the student - as it has increasingly over the past ten years - and debate surrounding its value focuses on the increased earning capacity degree holders have, the university’s main duty becomes to ensure that students get value for money: that they receive their degree, even if that means a decline in academic standards.

The Coalition’s proposed deregulations, including an increase of up to 30 per cent in HECS and unlimited full-fee paying places, would only exacerbate this problem. Anecdotes of lecturers marking up full-fee paying students or writing chunks of the theses of overseas students already circulate. If the proposed changes were implemented, these trends would clearly increase.

In the US, the very model of a deregulated higher education system, "grade inflation" - which occurs when a student receives a grade which is unwarranted by the level of work or achievement demonstrated - is a serious problem. Duke University academic Stuart Rojstaczer analysed grading trends at more than 80 schools across the country, finding that Grade Point Averages had increased by an average of 0.6 (out of a possible 4.0) from 1967 to 2001, with private schools undergoing grade inflation at a rate about 25 to 30 per cent higher than public schools. This improvement was not matched by changes in SAT results.

Rather, the shift is thought to be a consequence of the infiltration of a "customer service" approach into the academy, replacing the authority of academic judgment with the authority of student wants. Reliant on student tuition dollars for survival, and restricted by a corporate sector that equates a good education with high grades and good research outcomes with those that reflect their interests, colleges have been forced to satisfy consumer expectations to the point that the average grade at many schools is now an A or B.

The relationship between students and educators is not the same, say, as the relationship between a hairdresser and client, nor should it be treated as such. While the “customer is always right” mantra exists to ensure a certain quality of service, demanding a distinction rather than a credit - or a concessional pass rather than a fail - is a very different kettle of fish to demanding a layered bob instead of a mohawk.

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The academic independence necessary to foster world-class Australian research and graduates cannot exist so long as universities are dependent on corporate investment and student dollars for their continued survival. If the government is serious about improving our higher education system, it must be prepared to fund it in ways that do not reduce the capacity of academics to monitor and uphold quality standards of education.

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About the Author

Rachel Hills is Managing Editor of Vibewire.nets print projects division and a freelance writer based in Sydney.

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