While controversy has surrounded the implementation of the Gonski recommendations for school education, there is general agreement on the soundness of the principle articulated in the original Gonski report of “sector-blind needs-based” funding.
In Australia, there is stark contrast between our school system where we have one of the largest independent school sectors, yet our higher education system is dominated by public universities. Independent schools receive substantial government funding with widespread though not universal political support, but independent higher education currently receives no government funding for teaching or research, despite many independent institutions being accredited to offer degrees up to doctoral level by our national regulator, TEQSA. Moreover, students enrolled in independent higher education institutions pay a 25% “administration charge” on their student loans compared to students at public institutions. Correct – no government funding and a dubiously anti-competitive impost on their student loans.
Our situation is the opposite of the US which has a very small independent school sector, and a diverse higher education system with independent institutions from small community colleges to the most prestigious research universities competing with public institutions.
What would a Gonski for higher education look like? The biggest change would be to refocus attention on students rather than institutional vested interests which dominate higher education debates at the moment. This is what “sector-blind needs-based funding” means. If students are the best placed to make judgements about which courses and institutions best serve them – in the broadest educational sense, not just in terms of job prospects – then funding should follow student choice. Many of our independent providers are not-for-profit and students are protected by a strong national regulator TEQSA which keeps the charlatans out of higher education – in contrast to the regulatory failure we have seen in VET in recent years.
So much for “sector-blind”. What about “needs-based”? For Gonski, this meant funding arrangements taking account of educational disadvantage, and a particular concern for students with disabilities. In higher education, funding has traditionally been per-student irrespective of student background, though special programs have assisted public universities to cater for disadvantaged groups of students, such as indigenous students. Gonski principles suggest this should be more systematic with differential funding for indigenous students, students with disabilities, students from regional areas, and students from metropolitan areas with low participation rates in higher education. Within this framework, it is difficult to see a rationale for the 25% loading on student loans of those who choose independent providers, as students from these disadvantaged groups are often overrepresented. This is certainly true of my own institution Alphacrucis, where many students at our Parramatta campus are drawn from western Sydney and are the first in their family to participate in higher education. Why are students who are most in need and perhaps have most to benefit from higher education denied the benefits of government funding? Why should their friends at public universities receive the benefits of government funding – friends who perhaps would have chosen the small class sizes, pastoral care, and commitment to academic integrity at Alphacrucis, but for the differential funding arrangements?
There is currently a review of the categories of higher education institutions chaired by former QUT Vice-Chancellor Peter Coaldrake. How does this relate to the Gonski principles? It seems likely that there will be a rationalisation of the categories, perhaps opening a path for a small number of comprehensive research-intensive institutions (such as Avondale and Alphacrucis) to gain university status. This would provide much needed diversity and competition on a level playing field for our incumbent public universities, increasing quality and reducing costs for students and taxpayers. It would also increase Australia’s competitiveness in international student markets where the university title is particularly valued. Alphacrucis, for instance, could tap into the large Asian and South Pacific Pentecostal student market, currently dominated by inferior American institutions which have access to the university title. This is perfectly consistent with the Gonski focus on student needs and neutrality between public and independent institutions, though the Coaldrake review does not explicitly cover funding arrangements.
A good dose of Gonski principles would improve outcomes for students in Australian higher education, just as for school education.
Paul Oslington is Professor of Economics at Alphacrucis, the national college of the Pentecostal movement in Australia. Alphacrucis was ranked no1 in Australia across all universities and colleges for student satisfaction with the overall quality of educational experience in postgraduate business and management courses, according to the most recent government QILT survey of student experience.