Minister Tehan pointed out that research showed the "... majority of new jobs will require tertiary qualifications" and suggested "... almost half of all new jobs will go to someone with a bachelor or higher qualification". However, I suggest student's first qualification should not be a degree, and need not be at an institution which conducts research.
Growth areas the minister identified were: health care, Science and Technology, Education, and Construction. The government will also include agriculture, although it was not one of the growth areas identified.
The government will provide 39,000 more university places by 2023 and 100,000 by 2030, but without any increase in funding. Instead this will be done by shifting government subsidies for different subject areas. The ANU VC did point out that funding will again be indexed for inflation, which will help universities.
In his speech the minister said "It’s a similar model to the one we used rolling out our microcredential initiative that offers short, online courses in areas of expected job demand.". However, the program referred to was not for micro-credentials, but bachelor and graduate certificates (equivalent to half a year long diploma). Microcredentials are much shorter qualifications.
At the time of the previous announcement, I assumed the Minister had misspoken in interviews referring to certificates as "microcredentials". However, the latest press club speech refers to micro-credentials seven times, so this is no accident. Graduate certificates already existed, and while undergraduate equivalents of these were new, they were hardly revolutionary. However, they did herald a more interventionist approach by Government, as they were for specific priority areas.
Under the new funding approach students of agriculture and mathematics pay 62% less than before, in teaching, nursing, clinical psychology, English and languages 46% less, and science, health, architecture, environmental science, IT, and engineering will pay 20% less. There is no chnage for medicine, dental, and veterinary science. To balance the cost, students in Humanities pay 113% more, Law and Commerce 28%.
The Government strategy assumes more students will enroll in the cheaper degrees, but the ANU VC suggests this may not happen. Most domestic student receive a HECS government loan, and research says they therefore do not see a strong price signal. The result could be that just as many students enroll in the higher cost degrees, resulting in more loans and cost for government.
An important point to note is that while most of the speech refers to the cost of degrees, the costs are per unit (or what is called a "course" in US terminology). So what an individual student pays depends on what units they choose each semester. The Minister emphasized an Arts student could save money by doing IT units. This will create an added level of complexity and potential for gaming the system by re-categorizing units. As an example, law courses categorized as "IT", to make them cheaper, or IT courses categorized as law to make them more expensive.
One aspect of the new policy not discussed by the minister is if a university degree is the best preparation for a job, or are there better cheaper, more flexible, alternatives? The "micro-credentials" mentioned by the minister are made up of introductory units from traditional inflexible degree programs. This differs from the training provided by Australia's Vocational Education and Training (VET) sector.
State government TAFEs and private VET organizations are specifically designed to provide fast flexible job specific training, unlike university degrees. As an example, after completing a Graduate Certificate in Higher Education in the university system, in undertook the equivalent Certificate IV in Training and Assessment in the VET sector.
For university I completed traditional semester long units. In contrast, there were no conventional classes for the much shorter modules which made up the VET Cert IV. Instead I met with an assessor, who helped me prepare evidence of my prior learning, and then select short online units for missing skills. It would be possible to use a similar approach at university for a degree, but this would require retraining staff and re-imagining what university is for. The Australian Government's approach appears to be to nudge universities in this direction.
The Government will also provide funding for regional, remote and Indigenous students, with a Tertiary Access Payment of $5,000 to relocate to study and a Fares Allowance. Interestingly, this will apply to a Certificate IV, as well as university degrees. However, no funding was announced to improve the quality of online learning, which could improve the education of many more regional, remote and Indigenous students. A$500 m fund to support Indigenous, regional and low SES students into and through university might be able to be applied to e-learning. There is also $21 m for Regional University Centres which support regional students.
Near the conclusion of his speech, the Minister said he expected demand for international education will "remain strong post COVID-19, if borders start to open by 2021". Unfortunately there was no mention of any initiatives to help universities expand new forms of international education. In 2016 and 2017 I warned an international crisis could stop students getting to Australian campuses and suggested an online option be made ready for this contingency.
The Australian government did not take up this suggestion and Australian export revenue has suffered as a result. There are other longer term trends threatening the Australian international and domestic education industries, which unfortunately the government and universities are not addressing. In the decade after COVID-19 it is likely we will see competition for students from new forms of institutions around the world.
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