Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Plan to Rate US Colleges and Cap Student Loans Similar to Australia

US President Obama released a "Plan to Make College More Affordable: A Better Bargain for the Middle Class" (White House, 22 August 2013). This envisages publishing performance measures for US Colleges from 2015 and later tie government aid to these ratings. Also it is proposed to cap student loan repayments at 10 percent of monthly income. These measures are similar to some already in place in the Australian higher education system. The USA could learn from Australia's experience.

The Australian Government provides subsidized student loans called "HELP" which only need to be repaid when income reaches a set level (currently $51,309 per year). This is a relatively low cost scheme to administer, but is not without problems (such as students who leave Australia and never repay the debt).

If government is funding education, then it seems reasonable there is a government mandated minimum standard. This system applies in Australia to higher education, with both private and public institutions requiring to meet minimum standards. But a government rating one institution as better than another is more problematic and not done in Australia. Apart from the problem of having a reliable system, it has to be asked what is the purpose of the government rating and if it will be effective.

Australia has the Tertiary Education Quality and Standards Agency (TEQSA), which is a government agency, but relatively free of political interference, with academics setting the standards.

The Australian Government provides the "MyUniversity" website with details of all Australian institutions. This details the qualifications of the staff and how many have awards for teaching, which is relatively uncontroversial.  More at issue are student survey results for each subject area.

I have recently undertaken tertiary teacher training and so am comfortable with the idea of being rated by the students and have designed a course which rates highly. But some of my colleagues have difficulty with the concept and practice of designing courses which meet external standards and are popular with students.

There is the risk of a race to the bottom, with courses which just meet minimum standards and are designed to be easy and therefore popular. But I find that students value a course which challenges them. Also while meeting external standards is a useful discipline for the course designer.

The USA might want to adopt more of the Australian approach to encourage quality higher education. However, problems remain with both systems. One issue is if the information provided about courses actually influences student behavior and if this information is useful in making a decision on what and where to study. As an example, there are swings in different sectors of the economy. If these swings match the length of a course, then the information reported about student's success in the workforce will give the wrong signals to the students.

As an example, Australia has experienced a mining boom over the last few years, with a high demand for skills in that sector. A student looking at the statistics would think  mining is a good area to get into. However that boom is now coming to an end. The student may find there are no jobs by the time they graduate. Or if they are lucky, the end of their course will coincide with the next upswing in mining. One way to counter this is to provide predictions of future employment (which have their own problems). Another solution is to provide courses suitable for a range of jobs.

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