More students and more degrees do not a smarter country make
Unfortunately Australia has adopted Britain's policy of increasing the number of students studying in higher education beyond the point where it makes sense.
The goal of government is to ensure that by 2025, 40 per cent of Australians aged from 25 to 34 will possess a university degree. The problems with this supply-led initiative is that it inevitably leads to a situation where government is forced to increase student numbers by fundamentally transforming both the content and meaning of university education.
The expansion of the university sector has a direct impact on the quality of the education it provides. Experience shows that all but a select group of elite institutions have to cater to students who lack the educational attainment and motivation of previous generations of undergraduates. As the British experience demonstrates, the consequence of policy-driven expansion is that many universities accommodate it by lowering expectations of their students, fiddling with methods of assessment and inflating grades.
Policy-driven expansion is often criticised on the grounds that it fails to meet its objectives with the provision of adequate resources. But the problem with expansion is not simply that the strain on resources may diminish the quality of university of education. Obviously the recent growth in student numbers leading to an additional 30,000 students in Australian universities does not leave the system untouched. Despite the investment of additional resources, student-staff ratios will decrease and the infrastructure will have difficulties coping with the extra demand.
However the most significant outcome of expansion is that it has created a buyers’ market, which fundamentally alters the relationship between students and the university. This is how it works. A buyers’ market in education means that there is an excess of supply of university places over demand. The goods being sold on a buyers’ market become cheaper because supply exceeds demand. This is not a problem if there is a buyers’ market in shoes - all that it means is that footwear declines in price.
Unfortunately, in the case of higher education an excess of supply often results in the devaluation of the quality of a degree. It starts with the lowering of standards of entry as many institutions attempt to increase student numbers. It ends with the fuelling of credentialism and the value of a degree declines.
The clearest evidence showing Australian higher education has become a buyers’ market is the steady expansion of the number of offers made to potential undergraduates. In the three years since the government’s 2009 statement that it would uncap the number of university places, offers have increased 19 per cent. During the same period applications rose by just 8 per cent. Clearly the number of places on the market has outstripped the numbers of genuinely interested students.
This is an example of a supply-fuelled expansion of higher education. Even the 8 per cent increase in applicants was in part an outcome of vigorous marketing by universities.
Competition for a larger slice of the student market invariably leads universities to make life as easy as possible for their potential customers. That is why the increase of offers to 210,000 students nationally was paralleled by the lowering of standards of entry.
For example last year, the University of Melbourne increased its intake of undergraduates by 8 per cent. To get the extra bums on seats it dropped its entrance scores for arts and sciences.
Supporters of policy-driven expansion often argue that the lowering of entry scores - the Australian Tertiary Admissions Rank - is no big deal.
It is true that many students with relatively low entry scores can flourish in a stimulating intellectual environment. But experience suggests that unless such students are provided with additional resources to undergo remedial work they may face difficulties. Many universities are not very good at providing such support.
In any case the question that needs to be posed is: should universities be expected to provide the kind of teaching previously provided by schools?
In principle the lowering of entry to university need not compromise the quality of education it provides. However the pressure to accommodate to a growing range of mixed ability students usually leads to the cutting of corners.
Numerous academics have told me in confidence that during the past two decades they have seen a steady erosion in the quality of course content. It is not that academics have self-consciously decided to reduce standards of course works. What has happened is that faced with pressure to hold on to students, corners are cut and expectations are lowered.
Typically the tendency towards soft or “progressive” marking is only exposed in the public domain in more extreme cases, invariably involving international students. From time to time newspapers report that universities are reluctant to penalise international students with poor written and verbal and English skills. However the erosion of standards of assessment is not confined to international students alone.
Thankfully, a handful of universities, where entry remains competitive, are able to withstand the pressure to compromise standards. But the main casualty of policy-led expansion is academic integrity. Recently, David Willetts, Britain’s Universities Minister, said institutions had to prioritise “academic integrity” and resist pressure to mark up students’ work. In Britain, a record 53,215 undergraduates - one in six - gained a first-class honours degree last year . That represents an increase of 125 per cent in a decade. Grade inflation on such a huge scale is the inevitable consequence of the mindless expansion of higher education.
Young people who want to go university fully deserve our support. But the aspiration for academic learning has little to do with fulfilling a government promoted target. Policy-led expansion of higher education is a quantitative exercise designed to increase numbers.
But a quality university education cannot be increased by simply throwing money at it and turning on the tap. Intellectual capital is not like its financial equivalent. It cannot be increased by throwing money at it.
It is enhanced through an academic encounter that cultivates a love of learning and ideas. An enlightened government would take academic learning seriously and resist the temptation of politicising higher education.
published by The Australian, 4 February 2012