Reinterpreting higher education quality in response to policies of mass education: the Australian experience
Written by Dr Tim Pitman, National Centre for Student Equity in Higher Education
Democratic access to tertiary education is one of the most persistent policy issues in higher education of the last half-century (Martin, 2009). As UNESCO stated more than 40 years ago, ‘there cannot – or will not – be a democratic and egalitarian relationship between classes divided by excessive inequality in education’ (Faure et al., 1972, p. xxvi). During this time there have been global shifts from élite to mass and towards universal education (Trow, 2000). For some stakeholders the shift to mass education is central to higher education’s future structure, purpose social and economic role (Schuetze & Slowey, 2002). Yet for others, this shift constitutes ‘a serious threat to academic standards [by creating] institutions staffed by less well-educated and less-accomplished teachers, teaching less-able and less well-motivated students’ (Trow, 1974, p. 35). It appears that almost invariably, when policies to increase access to higher education are implemented, the relationship between mass education and educational quality is foregrounded (Lomas, 2002; Whiteford et al., 2013).
In Australia in 2009, following the recommendations of a review of its higher education system, the restriction on student places was removed, creating a demand-driven funding system (Bradley et al., 2008). As a result of this policy, targeted university enrolments rose by 20% between 2008 and 2012 (Department of Education, 2012). Concomitantly, higher education debate referenced the ‘problem’ of ‘bringing large numbers of students into higher education who are often manifestly unready for the level of instruction demanded [leading to the need] to water down curriculum and standards…’ (Hawkins & Neubauer, 2011, p. 11). Academic standards are the cornerstone of any provider and, both in Australia and internationally, the expansion and diversification of higher education has resulted in growing concerns about their quality (Thompson-Whiteside, 2013). This article analyses how, throughout 2008–2014, various higher education stakeholders reframed their descriptions of higher education quality, in response to new policies of mass education. The analysis of the overarching policy framework, associated political commentary and public submissions made by the sector, provides a greater understanding of how higher education quality is interpreted and reinterpreted by various stakeholders; both to defend their stake in the sector and to respond to changing policies of mass higher education.