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On-line off-target: the unexpected consequences of Labor's e-university

By Andrew Norton - posted Thursday, 15 March 2001

A characteristic scene in the late communist societies of eastern Europe was long queues of people trying to buy necessities. This is what happens when the state artificially keeps production below demand. You have to wait and take what you can.

Couldn’t happen here? In fact it does, each year as students apply for university. The number of government-financed university places is set below actual demand, and distributed by quota among the various universities. If you want to go to university you have to take what they eventually offer you.

The inevitable consequence is fewer students enrolling in their preferred courses, which in turn contributes to high drop-out rates. Just as seriously, the quota protection against competition allows universities to get away with treating undergraduates poorly. The annual Course Experience Questionnaire, sent to all completing students, consistently shows most students rating their teachers as poor to mediocre.


At first glance, the ALP’s proposed University of Australia Online (UAO), with 100,000 extra undergraduate student places offered at half-HECS, is solidly in the tradition of Australian university central planning.

Yet again, Canberra is to decide how many students there will be and where they should enroll, with no sign attention was paid to actual student preferences.

As I will explain later, the UAO may have some positive if unintended consequences for students at campus-based universities. Sadly, it may also have some negative if unintended consequences for precisely the kind of people the ALP wants to help – students from low-to-middle-income families.

To understand the problem, we need to ask why we have university campuses in the first place. After all, the technology to transfer information without person-to-person contact isn’t something that’s turned up in the last ten years. It’s been around for centuries – books.

We don’t just send young people a reading list for a variety of educational and socialising reasons.

American studies of college students consistently find that, as with other activities, thinking improves through practice. Discussion with teachers and peers improves cognitive ability. The desire to learn from bright peers is one reason students struggle to get into universities with high entry standards. Even if on-line learning is better than traditional distance education, because some electronic interaction is possible, it is unlikely to match the dynamics of a good classroom.


Campus-based education should also be a social experience that develops students’ social skills. Attributes employer surveys cite as important in graduates, such as interpersonal skills, leadership qualities, communication, teamwork, enthusiasm and initiative are much easier to develop face-to-face. Involvement in a campus club may more clearly demonstrate development of these attributes than an academic record. With three of the top four perceived deficiencies in graduate applicants being attributes from this list – communication, interpersonal skills, and motivation – these are not trivial matters in preparing students for the workforce.

Social contacts are necessary parts of the networks used to find professional jobs. In the Australian labour market about 15% of professional and administrative jobs are found through friends, relatives and company contacts, and between a quarter and a third of jobs were found through employers approaching prospective employees. Going to a campus-based university is one way to break into these networks.

Students from low-to-middle-income families are more likely to need all these campus-taught skills than other students. They are less likely to come from home and school environments that stimulate their thinking, perhaps a little more likely to need their social skills honed, and less likely to have access via parents and friends to information about professional jobs.

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About the Author

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

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