Student debt debate a threat to demand driven funding

Plus Uni Melbourne’s future is flexible and cuts to come sooner and later

Market medicine

Monash U has launched a five year combined bachelor and masters in pharmacy, “designed to produce highly trained pharmacists capable of driving improvement in standards of frontline patient care.” The university’s timing could not be better with its pharmacy programme rated fourth in the world in the new QS Subject Ranking. This has to be a better response to a competitive market than Dean William Charman’s 2011 call for a moratorium on new pharmacy schools.

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Cuts sooner as well as later

Twice in the last day or so Simon Birmingham has said there will be “more information” on government education policy before the election – which could be taken to mean there will not be much in the budget. But vice-chancellors would be wise not to bet the chancellery on a low-risk budget. CMM’s best guess is that the rate of HECS HELP will increase to 50 per cent of course costs, that equity participation funding will take a big hit and that the successor to the Office of Learning and Teaching will be cancelled – all in the interests of “budget repair”.

MOOCs of the day

UNSW has joined the universities using MOOCs as community services with two courses via Future Learn; Thinking through disability and Working through disability. It joins U Tas (dementia), Swinburne U (autism), UoQ (intellectual disability) and Uni Adelaide (addiction). CMM continues to wonder how long it will be before somebody in government realises how MOOCs can provide enormous amounts of information to people who need assistance in dealing with a personal or family challenge at a fraction of the cost of print and broadcast campaigns.

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Unintended consequences

The Parliamentary Budget Office report on student debt (CMM yesterday) was very good for the government in the short term, giving it cover for doing pretty much whatever it wants on the grounds of demolishing a pile of debt. But there is a big risk of unintended consequence if critics of demand driven funding use it as an opportunity to demand caps on university places. Education Minister Simon Birmingham is staunch in support of DDF, but if a future Senate blocks increased course costs for students and smaller taxpayer outlays on universities he may not have much choice.

To cap or not could be a big issue in the government’s promised pre-election strategy and astute university groups are obviously anxious that the debt bomb does not blow up the student funding model that relies on the original HECS HELP scheme and which they use to cross-subsidise research. As Conor King from the Innovative Research Universities points out, much of the PBO‘s enormous projected debt is caused by the exponential increase in vocational student loans under the rorted VET FEE HELP scheme. “The unstated conclusion is that HECS-HELP on current arrangements is robust,” he says via Twitter. Certainly, the original higher education HECS HELP programme is in much better shape. That the PBO modelling is based on the 20 per cent cut to the Commonwealth Grant Scheme in the original Christopher Pyne package also makes things look worse than they will be if this continuing government policy is never implemented.

Group of Eight chief executive Vicki Thomson argues DDF is a huge success and has nearly reached its target of 40 per cent of 25-34 year old having a bachelor, or better, degree. But, and it is a big but indeed, “in the current environment it is not unreasonable to have a conversation around its long term sustainability. The government is committed to returning the budget to surplus but a key obstacle in achieving this is that there is no way of controlling the cost to the government under the demand driven system.”

In contrast, Universities Australia suggests, loan schemes aside, “the sustainability of the rest of the higher education budget should be more assured in coming years, with new enrolment data for the first half of 2015 showing the growth in new student enrolments has now plateaued.”

But the National Tertiary Education Union suggests the PBO shows the government’s deregulated numbers can never add up; “students would be worse off, in the medium term the budget would be worse off and universities are not guaranteed being any better off. This is a policy with no winners except the very short-term boost (sugar hit) to the budget bottom line.”

Instead the NTEU advocates;

“investing in tertiary (vocational and higher) education is critical to Australia’s economic and social future. Instead of disguising short term expenditure through loans schemes and resorting to policies that increase the cost burden on students, surely government should be back at the drawing board examining the costs of tertiary education and how the government can make direct and transparent investments.”

Think this can’t happen? Capping places, or a model where they are allocated according to estimated need in the economy could be the start, especially if Labor wins the election.

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Uni Melbourne’s flexible future

University of Melbourne management is starting to share thinking on aspects of the teaching and learning restructure being planned in the Flexible Academic Programming Project. A forum next Thursday will “initiate a broader dialogue with staff and students about current curriculum structures, alternative curriculum structures and the role of lectures in our teaching and learning activities.” Gregor Kennedy and Richard James, both drivers of the change process are among the speakers. What the university has stopped calling FAPP (its now FlexiAp) is a very big deal indeed, a proposed third transformation of the university’s products and processes to follow the Melbourne degree model and the Business Improvement Programme.

Forward focus

The Innovative Research Universities lobby is very pleased that all six of its member made the first 100 in the THE150 under 50” ranking, (CMM yesterday). “Education is about the future not about legacies of the past,” IRU director Conor King said. CMM is sure he wasn’t having a go at any institutions in particular.

Agreement, up to a point on ATAR

That Education Minister Simon Birmingham yesterday welcomed the Higher Education Standards Panel discussion paper on transparent undergraduate entry standards (CMM Thursday) isn’t surprising. The minister has made it plain that he wants universities to reduce attrition and course entry standards that reflect what a degree requires are part of the process.

But Universities Australia was not entirely thrilled with HESP’s suggestion that, “UA and other higher education peak bodies should publicly support clarity on how ATARs scores are used and the manner in which alternative admissions pathways and policies are applied.”

UA points out that it welcomed “further transparency in university admissions when HESP’s assessment of ATARs was announced,” back in February and needs no prompting.”

The Group of Eight also weighed in yesterday, with chief executive Vicki Thomson pointing out that a third of its members’ commencing students do not enter via ATAR but that of those who do the median score was 92, compared to 80 for all universities. “The ATAR is a valuable admission tool and a very good predictor of university performance at Go8 institutions,” she said.

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Applied research embraced

The Australian Technology Network was pushing for an impact performance model long before applied research was so central to government policy and it has accordingly embraced the principles of the government’s innovation agenda. Yesterday the five-member alliance adopted an seven-point statement on intellectual property, leading with a commitment “to undertake research that is relevant to challenges faced by society and in partnership with industry, government and community groups.” No wonder Education Minister Birmingham was happy to launch it.

Know something the world needs to know? Anonymity guaranteed but lots of questions asked, stephen4@hotkey.net.au