Submissions to the Bradley review of higher education policy are now appearing on the DEEWR website. As a veteran of such reviews – this is the third comprehensive review I have been involved with in just over a decade – my expectations of its outcomes are modest. I have two failures behind me.
But in The Weekend Australian yesterday there was some sign that the government is thinking seriously about the structural issues that keep the education system so far below its potential. In a page one story, they report a proposal to use federal incentive payments to get funding for vocational education to be based on student demand (aka vouchers) rather than institutional grants.
If vocational education, why not higher education? There are no states to deal with, just a Senate in which Labor would get an overwhelming majority if a party that has no ideological grounds for opposing student choice voted with it (despite its failure to implement it while in office).
I’ve yet to read more than a handful of submissions to the review, but both the University of Melbourne submission (pdf) and my own submission (pdf) explain how the current system of centralised allocation is highly dysfunctional.
Certainly, there will be protectionists within the higher education sector who will oppose student choice (advice to would-be students: if the vice-chancellor of the university you are thinking of choosing thinks it cannot survive in a competitive market, take it as a sign from the top that it isn’t much good). But most Vice-Chancellors have little political clout, and their shameful desire to sacrifice the interests of students to their institutional interests should be rejected
The only aspect of a student-demand driven system likely to have real political influence is the possible impact on regional campuses. Though there is no good data on what might happen to enrolments at these campuses in a more choice driven system, their typically low ENTER scores suggest that for many university applicants these are campuses of last resort.
Personally, I don’t have any difficulty with closing campuses where the costs exceed the benefits. But if a political decision is made that these campuses need to be kept open, the policy mechanism for doing so is surely not to corrupt the entire system, imposing huge costs on students, universities and the broader economy, but to use direct subsidy to prop up otherwise non-viable regional campuses.
So the political costs of switching to a demand-driven system are modest and manageable. I’m not getting my hopes up too much, but it seems just possible that, as in the 1980s and early 1990s, Labor will introduce market reforms where the Coalition had failed to do so.