Though the federal government plans to stop telling universities how many students to enrol in which disciplines, its plans for university ‘performance funding’, detailed today, show that the urge to micromanage doesn’t go away, it just shifts to different areas.
There will be new targets for enrolment of low SES students, retention rates, pass rates, overall and teaching satisfaction, students’ self-assessed generic skills, employment and further study outcomes, with warnings of other possible future indicators to replace the more manifestly inadequate on this list. Two of these – a new ‘University Experience Survey’ for first years and wider use of the Graduate Skills Assessment test – would involve additional form filling-in and testing for students.
The targets will be adjusted to the circumstances of each institution, so ‘success’ against the targets is likely to depend as much on the skill of the university negotiators in getting easy targets as anything subsequently done to achieve them.
Though the goals may sound good, this is not necessarily the case. We don’t have the evidence base we need to show that a significant increase in low SES students would be good for those students, as compared to alternatives such as TAFE. Retention is not self-evidently good, since dropping out can result from a sensible cutting of losses from bad choices, taking of better options, or adjusting to changed life circumstances. Pass rates can be manipulated. Higher satisfaction will usually be good all other things being equal, but there may be trade-offs involved in academic standards or re-directed institutional spending. We hope universities typically increase generic skills, but not all students need their generic skills improved, and there are the usual dangers of universities ‘teaching to the test’ rather than covering more important subject matter. Employment outcomes are influenced by the state of the economy and by personal factors universities can do little to influence. Further study is not always desirable.
It’s good to make information on these indicators available, but their relative importance should be assessed by universities and students, not by Canberra bureaucrats. Cumulatively, chasing these outcomes will require significant diversions of time and resources from other activities that may be more important.
Indeed, with only $138 million on offer for all institutions, the big question is why universities should bother, especially since there is no guarantee they will recover the costs of compliance. In the year the performance fund comes into effect teaching revenues are likely to be around $11 billion. International and fee paying students are the main game, and universities should focus on what these markets demand, not on second guessing requirements from the bureaucracy.