Does accelerating access to higher education lower its quality? The Australian experience
Written by Tim Pitman, Paul Koshy and John Phillimore, National Centre for Student Equity in Higher Education (NCSEHE)
In the pursuit of mass higher education, fears are often expressed that ‘quantity’ increases at the expense of ‘quality’ (Hawkins & Neubauer, 2011). The case of the Australian higher education sector is salient, for in many respects it has led the way, internationally, in increasing access through both domestic and international channels. This paper examines the recent introduction of a demand-driven funding system (DDFS) for domestic enrolments in Australia to determine the impact of the subsequent expansion in domestic student numbers on overall domestic performance.
Following the dramatic expansion of the Australian higher education sector from the late 1980s onwards, national targets have regularly been set for increasing the access options of groups of students historically under-represented in universities (Bradley, Noonan, Nugent, & Scales, 2008; Martin, 1994). However, the introduction of new pathways for commencing students has regularly been cited as a potential threat to quality in higher education (Reid, Barker, & Murphy, 1995). The perceived tension between goals of access and those of quality are evident in other nations’ higher education sectors. For example, in the UK, the Government’s recent announcement that it would abolish the cap on student numbers altogether in the 2015–2016 academic year included the codicil that it ‘[reserved] the right to re-impose number controls on institutions that expand their student numbers at the expense of quality’ (HM Treasury, 2013, p. 55).
In 2012, Australia abolished ‘caps’ on higher education places, in effect allowing universities to be funded for all students they enrolled rather than subjecting them to nationally determined quotas. Once again, this sparked comment that increased access would have detrimental effects on educational quality (Norrie, 2012). In preparation for the uncapping of places, Australian higher education went through what could be described as a ‘lead-in’ period, during which universities were allowed – and funded – to significantly increase enrolments in preparation for full uncapping. Australia’s lead-in period spanned two academic years (2010 and 2011), during which universities were permitted to enrol an additional 10% of students. In reality, it started one year earlier (2009), as universities unofficially started to over-enrol in preparation for the anticipated changes. In this and the broader context, the lead-in period for the DDFS provides a useful insight into how universities respond when supply is significantly increased; in particular the effect it has on the quality of higher education, as measured by the academic ability of incoming students and the rates at which they progress through their courses.