The Unchained University

Australia’s universities are not preparing students adequately for their futures.  Report author and higher education expert Andrew Norton argues that universities are failing students in several ways. They offer too few places to meet demand, there are insufficient incentives for universities to ensure a good match between courses and students, and students are prevented from investing in their own education.

The problems are particularly acute in undergraduate education, where staff to student ratios are increasing, student surveys report dissatisfaction with teaching quality, and thousands of students miss out on their preferred course every year.

The Unchained University offers an alternative to the current system. In what is the most comprehensive argument for market reform ever to be published in Australia, Norton exposes the failings of the current centrally planned model and argues that a market system in which universities decide how many students they will take and what fees they will charge would produce better results.

‘A demand-driven higher education system would mean fewer students missing out on their preferred courses, improved quality of undergraduate education, and the end of universities’ chronic financial problems.’

For instance, instead of the federal government allocating a limited number of student places to universities, each university’s student numbers would be determined by their success in attracting students, with no limits on total numbers imposed by government. This would create incentives to improve teaching as universities would no longer be guaranteed student numbers.

‘The strength of a market in higher education is that it creates incentives to meet quality expectations.’

There is, however, a powerful coalition of interest groups opposing change–from student unionists to Vice Chancellors–but Norton shows that their fears and accusations are baseless or exaggerated.

One popular misconception is that charging fees would price low-income students out of university education. But as Norton points out, the proportion of young people from low-income backgrounds going to university has steadily increased over the period when HECS was first introduced, and then differential HECS.

‘Students from all backgrounds can do the sums–university degrees are good value in protecting against unemployment and creating access to well-paid jobs. There is no reason to expect that moderate fee rises would change this situation.’