According to The Australian, we are seeing a ‘private uni bonanza’. 260 of the 2,300 new university places announced by Julie Bishop yesterday went to private institutions – Avondale College, the University of Notre Dame, Christian Heritage College, and the Tabor Colleges in South Australia and Victoria.
Perhaps more significantly, the extension of FEE-HELP loans to any institution offering accredited higher education courses seems to have produce a surge in their student numbers. All up in the first half of 2006 there were about 21,000 students with government support, either in tuition subsidies or loans, outside the traditional public sector universities (not all of them are at private providers though; there are publicly-owned institutions including TAFEs on the list). That’s nearly twice as many as the year before, compared to enrolment growth of just 1% in the public institutions. Take out the newly-listed institutions, and the non-public university higher ed sector still shows a very respectable 31% growth rate.
Bishop’s allocations and her Department’s statistics highlight how blurred the distinctions between public and private higher education have become. Public universities take fee-paying students and private universities take government subsidised students. Many more students at private institutions take government loans, but are denied tuition subsidies received by people taking similar courses at public universities. The higher education system is just a series of anomalies held together by inertia.
As the Howard government reaches its end, not sorting out the higher education mess must be classed as one of its failures. How sad that possibly the government’s last major higher ed announcement includes the kind of centralised micro-management that ought to be ideological anathema. Does the government really need to tell RMIT to offer 10 places in a Bachelor of Applied Science (Construction Management) course at its city campus? Or the University of Sydney to offer 5 places in a Master of Indigenous Health (Substance Use) course at its Camperdown campus? Even within a centralised funding model, they should just be given the places in the broad discipline funding cluster, which they can then allocate to courses as they see fit.
But better still, scrap the whole allocation process, and let student demand drive the system, with no arbitrary distinctions between public and private providers.