Posted by:

What value does university study add?

The federal government has released the discussion paper that will underpin the arrangements for funding for universities for the immediate future.  Mission-Based Compacts for Universities: a Framework for Discussion (


The arrangements that result from compact agreements will have far reaching effects on individual institutions and on the Australian higher education sector as a whole.


The discussion paper is comprehensive in terms of the areas covered and issues raised. 


It is particularly pleasing to see maters of transparency, duration of compacts and, in particular, consequences for failing to meet compact commitments raised.  Without consequences for non-compliance, the whole exercise will be a waste of time and money, not to mention an insult to the intelligence of the Australian people.


In terms of teaching and learning, I’m pleased to see that outreach and linkages to other tertiary education providers are specifically mentioned, although I’d like to see that strengthened from ‘may be included’ to ‘must be included’ in compact agreements.


The reason for my view here is that the government have set ambitious targets for widening participation in university education, and this will require closer and better working relationships with Vocational Education and Training (VET) and other tertiary providers by all universities.


There is concern in the sector that this work might be left to some universities while the elistist universities continue on with ‘business as usual’, that is, selecting high performing, high socio-economic status students straight from (usually private) high school while leaving the widening participation agenda to other universities.


Certainly, the Group of Eight (Go8) are talking a lot about schools, too much, some might say, and about how they fear the schools will fail to deliver the ‘right’ students for university level study as we move further into mass higher education. It’s a strange position to take in the circumstances.


At least if outreach and linkages were compulsory, there would be an appearance of attempts to disrupt the status quo.  I’d like to see caveats on outreach and linkages requirements that would require elitist universities to go beyond their private international student feeder institutions and get involved with a wider group of potential students in order to contribute meaningfully to national goals.  And then actually enrol some of them.


The pretence that a higher entry score equates with a higher level of quality would have to cease and this will be a hard ask for some.  But the fact is that elitist universities already quietly let seemingly ‘inferior’ students in to their hallowed halls.  They come through alternative entry schemes and equity programs.  They don’t have the impossibly high entry scores of their privileged peers, but they do about as well as them, once they’re at university.


Keeping this all a bit quiet is important for elitist universities’ reputations.  When we don’t have reliable ways to measure quality, we use proxies.  The primary one the public use for universities is how hard a university is to get into.  The higher the entry score, the better the university.


In essence, our measures of quality to date have not focused on learning outcomes for students nor on the ‘value add’ of university education, that is, what the students learn and how they change as a result of the teaching and learning they experience.  Somewhat out of necessity, at a national level we have used proxy measures of learning and teaching.  If there are to be new indicators as the compacts discussion paper seems to suggest, what are they and how will they be adjusted and how transparent will the adjustment process be?


If, for example, a university has a very high proportion of students from cohorts known to have lower retention rates, how exactly will this be compensated for when using retention as an indicator of quality?  If a university has a very high proportion of students with high social capital who would do well on proxy measures of learning – such as employment rates on graduation – whatever the quality of teaching, how exactly will this compensated for to ensure these universities are not unfairly advantaged?  With the government agenda to widen participation and the expectation in the sector that some universities will take on more of this agenda than others, how will a fair system of measuring teaching and learning quality be devised?


The indicators, and process, of determining quality needs to change to accommodate the national agenda.  The group that makes the decisions that will have very far-reaching implications for funding for universities and, therefore, to the quality of education offered across the sector needs to be representative of the sector.  I would suggest this group of experts should include a majority from universities with direct and longstanding experience of teaching a wide range of students from multiple pathways and backgrounds.


We shall see.



Leave a Reply