Keep the caps off! Student access and choice in higher education

6 Aug 2013

This paper argues that the Commonwealth Government should reconsider any plan to end its university open access policy.


After just 18 months of operation, Australia’s radical experiment in uncapping undergraduate university enrolments is under threat. According to its critics – which include the higher education minister and a leading vice-chancellor – it admits academically under-prepared students and consumes higher education funding that could be better used elsewhere.

This report, Keep the caps off!, shows that the new system is achieving its goals. It is lifting the supply of graduates to Australia’s economy, increasing student choice, and improving access to higher education for disadvantaged groups.

The old system of government allocating student places to universities was unresponsive to student demand. With uncapping, universities are responding to demand trends in science, health and engineering by providing new student places. The last two fields are also areas of labour market shortage. Across most other disciplines, university applicants’ chances of admission to their first-preference field of study have increased.

With their new freedom to offer more places, universities now offer Commonwealth-supported students innovative new options. Several new online ventures have started, ensuring that Australia is not left behind in this global trend. Universities are collaborating with TAFEs to meet the needs of new students.

Uncapping has meant that more students with lower ATARs (Australian Tertiary Admission Rank) are admitted to study. A minimum ATAR of 60 has been suggested. But degree completions data show that 60 is an arbitrary cut-off point. It would exclude the more than half of low ATAR students who successfully complete a qualification.

An ATAR cut-off of 60 would hit low socioeconomic status university applicants hard. In 2012, 8,000 low SES applicants would have been rejected without further consideration. With eased enrolment restrictions, the number of students from low SES backgrounds grew by 40 per cent after years of stagnation.

University is not for everyone. Universities have an ethical responsibility to advise applicants who are at high risk of not completing a degree. Information about completion rates should be much more easily available to people considering further study. But there is too much variation between courses and individual applicants for a national policy on university admission.

There are many hidden costs in capping university enrolments. Student places get misallocated between disciplines, because universities cannot easily adjust supply to demand. New higher education initiatives are hard to start. People miss out on their preferred careers. Social mobility suffers. There would be a high price to pay to offset $300 million in university funding cuts.

It would be a policy tragedy to recap university places now. It would make Australia’s higher education system less fair, less efficient, and less productive.

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