Wednesday, November 16, 2016

Improving Australian Higher Education Admissions

The report "Improving the transparency of higher education admissions" commissioned from the Higher Education Standards Panel, by the Australian Government has been released. The 75 page report has fourteen recommendations. As noted in the executive summary, Australia now has a demand driven system with students deciding which autonomous institution to attend. The report does not question if this is a good way to do higher education. Also the report only covers part of Higher Eduction: the university sector, with vocational education and training mentioned only briefly.

The report states the problem as being "Prospective students need to make informed decisions. The new admission processes and entry requirements are poorly understood.". This makes the assumption that universities are significantly different. In the case of the VET sector this approach has proved disastrous, with students being tricked into enrolling in worthless overpriced courses and ones they had no prospect of completing by unscrupulous providers, at a cost to the public of billions of dollars. The government has had to step in a heavily re-regulate this system. The situation is not that bad in the university sector, but even so the role of planning, not just market forces, should be considered.
The report makes recommendations to make university admissions processes more transparent. However, it should be noted that universities are competing for enrollments and it is not in their interests to make the process transparent. Any transparency will need to be imposed on universities from outside and enforced with penalties for non-compliance.

The report notes that less than half of 2014 enrollments were not based on ATAR. One solution might be to abandon the idea of students proceeding from school direct to university. Instead students could first undertake vocational studies and then some go on to university. There would then not need to be a complex reform of ATAR, as it would not be used for university admission.

Another part of the solution could be to ensure that students have access to affordable universities. Students should not have to embark on some sort of economist's fantasy of the rational consumer, evaluating every university, to maximize future outcomes. Instead a student should be able to assume that the nearest affordable institution is of acceptable quality. In any case, research shows that it does not much matter which school or university you go to, you get essentially the same education. This is an example of what is know in education discipline as the no significant difference phenomenon.

Universities, much like pharmaceutical companies, try to differentiate what is essentially the same product with extra features to attract customers. These features are generally of no real value and are just a form of marketing and profit maximization. The role of government is to ensure that all medicines meet safety and efficacy standards. Where government subsidizes medicine, there is also a role in keeping costs down with generic products. In education, government should play a similar role, encouraging students to take the cheapest acceptable courses, not helping universities amplify minor and irrelevant differences.

The report, and the government in general, continues to fail to address far more significant issue for higher eduction: how to make the transition to a primarily on-line activity. Within the next five to ten years most university education will be on-line. Australia can either plan for this transition, or have its HE sector become uncompetitive and shut down, like the car industry. Unless action is taken to make this transition, there will not be an Australian Higher Education sector and Australian students will be worrying if they have the prerequisites to enroll in an offshore on-line university.

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