Today Julia Gillard put out a media release drawing attention to the release of the first semester 2008 enrolment numbers (it’s a disgrace that it has taken a year to get these statistics ready, but that’s another issue).
They show that there is strong growth in the private higher education sector, despite fees that are significantly higher for domestic students than in the public universities. Commencing Australian students were up 17% on 2008 in the private providers, but only 0.2% in public universities (in absolute terms, the public institutions still have 95% of the market). These numbers suggest that the FEE-HELP scheme, which enables students to borrow tuition fees, is having a large effect.
Yet though these market signals show increasing student interest in private higher education, Gillard’s voucher scheme is specifically restricted to public higher education providers. This significantly undermines the positive potential of student choice, since it restricts choice to institutions that by the history of the funding system tend to be alike: large, multi-faculty, bachelor-to-PhD level institutions, aiming (with widely varying degrees of success) to be research institutions. It’s Henry Ford’s Model T kind of diversity: you can have any colour as long as it is black.
No rationale has been given for excluding the private providers.
There is no evidence that the quality of private providers is lower on average; indeed unlike the public universities with their self-accrediting system the private providers mostly have conflict-of-interest free external accreditation. Indeed, a few public universities now sub-contract some of their teaching to private providers.
There is no evidence that public universities have a special mission to help students from poor families; quite a few private providers have a higher percentage of low SES students than do the Group of Eight universities. Under Gillard’s system, kids from elite private schools will get heavily subsidised places in the law and medical faculties of Group of Eight universities, while kids whose schools let them down will end up paying full-fee feeder colleges to fill the gaps in their school education.
It’s not as if there is a clear commercial/not-for-profit divide here. The biggest players in the for-profit education market are the public universities, using billions of dollars in international student fee revenue to fill the funding gaps left by decades of poor-quality policy coming from Canberra.
As I argued some years ago, none of an institution’s origins, purposes, activities, regulation or funding mix reliably lead to a definition as either ‘public’ or ‘private’. The distinctions are a matter of history and convention, not principle.
I think Gillard will fail to fix the price flaws in her voucher scheme, so my criticisms on this point are somewhat academic: few private providers would sign up to such flawed arrangements. But building an artificial and arbitrary distinction between public and private institutions into the design of the new system suggests that there is more than one ideological blindspot driving the government’s higher education policymaking.