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Dr Brendan Nelson's university policy prescription: panacea, placebo or poison? Day 1

By Andrew Norton and Carolyn Allport - posted Wednesday, 24 September 2003

Havachats are week-long email dialogues between two prominent advocates on an issue of the day. To vote on the issue and make your view count, click here.

Day 1 . 2 . 3 . 4 .

Andrew goes first. Carolyn responds.


From: Andrew Norton
To: Carolyn Allport
Sent: Thursday, September 25, 2003 9:57 AM
Subject: Put students in control

Dear Carolyn,

In July, on another occasion in which we were invited to represent the polarities of the higher education debate, you remarked to me that we agreed on more than I thought. I was sceptical at the time, but reading through the government’s higher education legislation last week I began to think you might be right (readers hoping for controversy keep going, we’ll get to it).

Correct me if I am wrong (as if you would not), but neither of us favour the level of prescription in the Higher Education Support Bill 2003. In exchange for giving universities a limited power to set their own fees for Commonwealth subsidised students and making it easier to enrol full-fee students, the government wants to regulate in far more detail than now the total number of non full-fee undergraduate students and what courses they do, whether they can be charged for non-academic services, on what grounds they can be admitted, how long they can stay, how much debt they can accrue, how many of them get scholarships, and which of them are eligible for scholarships. This is just what will affect students directly.

An array of other measures would affect university administrations. They will be more accountable to quality agencies, will have to reduce the size of their governing bodies (and kick off the politicians), change their management systems to implement the new student ID number, ensure student services are not paid for out of fee revenue, risk having some courses not funded at all if the Minister does not like them (which in practice means they can’t be put on, since all full-fee undergraduate courses won’t be allowed), and extra funding will be conditional on measures that seem designed to minimise the union’s role. This isn’t all of it, but I think the highly interventionist character of these reforms is evident.

Less than a year ago, the Minister, Dr Brendan Nelson, said in a speech that ‘we are determined to reduce the amount of reporting and red tape that is required at universities by us.’ Obviously a lot has changed in the Minister’s mind since last November, and many of us will be wishing that he would change it back again. While I think that fee flexibility will significantly improve university education in this country, I can’t see that the same can be said for any of the other reforms. In some instances, I can see the problem they are aiming at, such as unwieldy University Councils and Senates, mismanaged student unions, and enterprise bargaining edicts coming from your office. In other cases, such as student numbers, student admission procedures, scholarships, and de-funding courses, the package is a solution in search of a problem.


Either way, market solutions are preferable to bureaucratic solutions. Once a sufficient percentage of university revenue comes from the market, there are real performance pressures on universities. I think the overseas students and their money have already prompted significant cultural change at universities, with far more attention being paid to student concerns and preferences. It’s showing in increased student satisfaction, despite some indicators, such as student-staff ratios, deteriorating over the last decade. Giving every student economic power, as the fee-charging elements of the Nelson package would, have the potential to accelerate this positive trend.

The advantage of market solutions over the bureaucratic alternative is their capacity for diversity and experiment. They can use local knowledge to find solutions adapted to particular circumstances, and can try new ways of doing things. They can make trade-offs between conflicting goals. I’ll illustrate this with the legislation’s provisions on student selection, which requires students to be chosen on "merit", with educational disadvantage being the only exception. While prior academic performance (what people usually mean by "merit" in Australia) will be the most common method of student selection, there’s no reason for it to be the only method. For example, the Minister himself has noted that we need more male school teachers. To achieve that goal, I’d have no difficulty with universities choosing male applicants, who meet minimum standards, above females who did better at school. There are many other potential examples of other social goals that could be chosen in preference to academic ‘merit’, which is in any case only moderately association with subsequent academic performance.

Sometimes universities will make the wrong decisions about student selection and much else. But this doesn’t matter; error is an inevitable part of the evolution toward good practice. Under the old fully publicly-funded system the feedback systems were too weak to work effectively, since no matter how badly universities performed they still received the same number of students and the same amount of money. Then, there was a case for regulation to fill gaps created by the absence of a market. It’s ironic that just when the government moves to create feedback structures that would change university practice for the better, it obstructs their operation with regulation that belongs to a different era of university finance.

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About the Authors

Andrew Norton is a research fellow at the Centre for Independent Studies and Director of the CIS' Liberalising Learning research programme.

Carolyn Allport is National President of the National Tertiary Education Union.

Other articles by these Authors

All articles by Andrew Norton
All articles by Carolyn Allport
Related Links
Centre for Independent Studies
Nationl Tertiary Education Union
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