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the way the cookie crumbles « Previous | |Next »
January 28, 2004

Universities are once again in the news with the latest commonwealth distribution of just under 25,000 fully funded university places by 2008.

The distribution has caused a stir in some states. Victoria and Queensland are crying foul. Some South Australians are arguing that they have been short changed by the Commonwealth. They are saying that South Australia has taken a hit for the sake of the rest of the nation. SA is being thrown in the educational trash bin. That parochalism is what you hear on talk back radio.

The distribution of 25,000 fully funded university places across the nation is designed to replace the partially funded places, or the over enrolments by the universities. These are being phrased out. Despite all the smoke and mirrors from those crying foul, it would appear that South Australia gains more than in fully funded places than it loses in the over enrolment cutback.

One real bone of contention is that South Australia will receive only 5.9% of the 25,000 fully funded university places. This is one of the lowest pieces of the cake. This is primarily due to its lower economic and population growth. The economic reality is that Western Australia and Queensland are growing faster than South Australia. So these states get proportionally more fully funded places than South Australia.

It's tough break. There is increasing demand for entry into SA universities and a need for new places. So SA slips into victim mode as the dream of Adelaide as an education city fades.

Another bone of contention is that it is becoming ever more difficult for school leavers to get into the prestige university courses. These courses are moving out of reach of all but the most exceptional students from a small group of elite schools. The 25, 000 fully funded places more or less replace the over enrolments and give a bit extra. That extra is not enough to cover the growing gap between demand and supply. The only option is pay full fees for the course.

Now education is important for South Australia. In the long term South Australia needs to address its decline in traditional manufacturing by nurturing a knowledge-based and globally competitive regional economy. It cannot continue to rely on wheat, wine, tourism, horticulture and aged care facilities. Nor can it afford its best and brightest to go to live and work interstate, as this would leave the state relatively impoverished and disadvantaged in relation to the other states.

Education is one circuit breaker of the vicious cycle of low growth, children moving to other states and South Australia going backwards relative to the other states.

But you hear very little from the Rann Government on fostering a university education. Few ideas come out of Nth Terrace these days now that Labor's old knowledge nation idea has been quietly dropped. All we seem to hear from the Rann Government is the need to raise school retention rates and all the nasty things the Libs are doing to make SA suffer. You hear very little about how higher education is linked to the new economy.

Simon Marginson says that:

"....the intense scarcity of publicly funded places is a sign of things to come. Universities are heading in a very definite direction and it is not taxpayer-funded access - though exactly what the final outcome will be, and how it will affect students and families, depends on the outcome of the federal election expected this year....One suspects the Government's main motive in abolishing its over-enrolment device was to increase the scarcity of public places, and switch the arena of expansion from marginally funded public places to the new fee-paying market.

There is another issue here. One noted before on public opinion--the ndexation of public funding thathe Independentr Senators failed to secure. On this issue Marginson says:

"....Nelson's failure to index public funding is highly strategic. With the value of government funding continually being eroded, all universities are driven hard into the marketplace.

But the danger here is that not only will natural fee earners like Sydney and NSW charge higher prices that further close off access but universities with lesser status will cut costs and prices and battle it out in the bargain basement. This "race to the bottom" threatens to devalue the quality of Australian degrees, underlining just how crucial is grant indexation."

What has been quietly launched is the new full-fee-paying higher education market underpinned by low-cost government loans. That is what the Howard Government wanted all along. Nelson found the way to deliver it.

Welcome to the new world of university education in Australia.

| Posted by Gary Sauer-Thompson at 4:46 PM | | Comments (0)