News & Views item - December 2008



The Bradley Review Sees Daylight. The Education Minister, Julia Gillard, Says She Will Respond By March. (December 17, 2008)

The 304-page final report of the Review of Australian Higher Education chaired by Professor Denise Bradley was published this morning. Its bottom line: "Boost public funding of the sector by $5.75 billion over the next four years."


It also recommends introducing what is to all intents a voucher system for student funding but eschews detail, a matter of consequence if course popularity is to be held in check to allow learning and research for the public good in the long as well as medium term to be able to compete.


The review shies  away from rigorous recommendations of detailing approaches to rebuilding the university sector but rather dwells on the need for critical assessment and accreditation of its institutions, ensuring that they meet increasingly exacting standards as determined by a national independent board to be established.


So for example it suggests that an institution that teaches a subject must also research in that area. Now you can have lots of fun developing different interpretations for meeting that requirement, or avoiding not meeting it. Obviously they are not the same thing.


Nevertheless the scope of the Bradley review allows the Rudd government, should it choose to do so, to "revolutionarily" revitalise the university sector.


Below are extracts of the report's executive summary followed by its forty-six recommendations.


The review was established to address the question of whether this critical sector of education is structured, organised and financed to position Australia to compete effectively in the new globalised economy. The panel has concluded that, while the system has great strengths, it faces significant, emerging threats which require decisive action. To address these, major reforms are recommended to the financing and regulatory frameworks for higher education.


There are now 37 public universities, two private universities and 150 or so other providers of higher education. The public universities derive significant proportions of their income from non-government sources and some private providers receive government subsidies. The public-private divide is no longer a sensible distinction.


Australia is losing ground. Within the OECD we are now 9th out of 30 in the proportion of our population aged 25 to 34 years with such qualifications, down from 7th  a decade ago. Twenty nine per cent of our 25- to 34-year-olds have degree-level qualifications but in other OECD countries targets of up to 50 per cent have already been set. These policy decisions elsewhere place us at a great competitive disadvantage unless immediate action is taken.


We also face difficulties with provision of higher education in regional areas where there are thin markets which will not sustain a viable higher education presence.


There are now clear signs that the quality of the educational

experience is declining; the established mechanisms for assuring quality nationally need

updating; and student-to-staff ratios are unacceptably high.


A quarter of our higher education students are from other countries and they make an enormous contribution to our economy, our relationships with the region and our demand for graduates. However, their concentration in a relatively narrow range of subject fields, in levels of study and by country of origin poses significant challenges both to institutions and to the long-term viability of the industry.


There is abundant evidence that government provision of funds for underlying infrastructure to support research in universities is very significantly below the real costs. This is leading to a pattern of quite unacceptable levels of cross-subsidy from funds for teaching, adversely affecting the quality of the student experience.


Analysis of our current performance points to an urgent need for both structural reforms and

significant additional investment. In 2020 Australia will not be where we aspire to be – in the

top group of OECD countries in terms of participation and performance – unless we act,

and act now.


Turning to the matter of what needs to be done the review points to recommended targets:


The target proposed for higher education is that 40 per cent of 25- to 34-year-olds will have attained at least a bachelor-level qualification by 2020. This will be quite testing for Australia’s current attainment is 29 per cent.


By 2020, 20 per cent of undergraduate enrolments in higher education should be students from low socio-economic backgrounds.


[F]unds will follow the student, not be allocated to the institution. All qualified individuals will have an entitlement to undertake an undergraduate qualification unlimited in duration or value.


All institutions in receipt of Commonwealth funds for teaching will be expected to establish initiatives to increase both the enrolment of, and success of, students from disadvantaged backgrounds.


[A]n additional allocation of $80 million per year to develop innovative, collaborative, local solutions to provision of higher education in regional and remote areas is recommended.


The panel recommends establishment of a whole-of-government approach, in partnership with the providers in the industry and the movement of regulation of the industry to an independent body.


Australia is the only OECD country where the public contribution to higher education remained at the same level in 2005 as it had been in 1995.


A significant increase in public investment and funding for higher education is warranted. An increase of 10 per cent to the base grants from the Commonwealth for teaching will begin to reduce student-to-staff ratios to a more reasonable level and have some effect upon casualisation of the academic workforce.


[A] move from 22 cents to 50 cents in the dollar will benefit not just the research enterprise but should also redirect resources to teaching. There is evidence of substantial cross-subsidy to research from funds for teaching domestic and international students.


The more demand-driven, student-entitlement system will require a greater focus on accreditation, quality assurance, evaluation of standards and use of outcomes measures.


An independent, national regulatory agency, with responsibility for all aspects of regulation including that for international students is necessary.


Greater incentives and more support for high performing international students to undertake research degrees in Australia and more places and better support for domestic research degree students will assist us to deal with a looming shortage of academics and researchers.


Finally the review recommended an amalgamation  of the university and TAFE systems -- a single level of government and nationally regulated rather than two sectors configured as at present. Such a model would deliver skills development in ways that are efficient and fit for purpose to meet the needs of both individuals and the economy. Responsibility for the funding and regulation of the tertiary education and training system should rest with the Australian Government and the independent regulatory agency should consolidate all regulatory functions across this tertiary system.