Changes to University Fees: What Is The Purpose Of University?

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WORDS | Ellen Kirkpatrick

The Federal Government’s review of funding for universities, whilst supporting the current demand-driven framework, has also suggested a move toward government funding for private and other non-university education providers. The aim is to get higher education students “work ready” and this change, it is argued, will improve employability for graduates as well as productivity in Australia’s business sector.

However, commentators have argued that this new system will do nothing more than take much needed money away from public universities. Concerns have also been raised over the role of university funding, and whether it, and higher education providers, should be solely concerned with vocational training.

Universities develop critical thinking skills and provide foundations for employment and work over a lifetime. As graduates are likely to change jobs several times throughout their lives, disciplines such as history, philosophy and sociology are preparations for employment just as much as vocational degrees such as accountancy and engineering.

Despite this, students are increasingly being forced to make their education choices based on vocational considerations. Sally Kift, the Deputy Vice Chancellor at James Cook University said that students drop out of university for many “complex and often intra-related reasons.” Most often these centre on perceptions of course and teaching quality, lack of clarity about what is required for success, limited engagement and a mismatch of expectations. Increased pressure from the government for more vocationally oriented degrees, Kift stated, will lead to a greater drop-out rates, particularly of first year students.

A 2010 study of retention in the higher education sector estimated that the total cost of first year drop-outs was more than $1 billion per year. This places the cost for each public university between $20 – $36 million. So although the government believes vocationally orientated degrees will add to business productivity, it is in actual fact a highly wasteful effort.

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