The creation of a seamless tertiary education sector is the mission of the nascent Tertiary Education Quality Standards Agency (TEQSA). The emerging sector in Australia is likely to take one of two forms: a binary or triunary structure. The former would return us to the pre-Dawkins era and the latter would propel us towards a US style model of postsecondary education with research intensive universities at the head of an apex, followed by universities offering large undergraduate programs with a smattering of research degrees underpinned by community or technical colleges teaching the mass of students at the base.
At the end of 2008 as the Bradley Review was in full swing, a heated debate played out in The Australian newspaper on the topic of community colleges. Group of Eighters thought they should be introduced to Australia and the rest of the sector decided not to go gentle into that octad night.
One year on and the community college idea is becoming a reality in Australia largely due to the concentration of research funding at Go8 universities. It's called the 'hubs and spokes' model. There was a fair amount of confusion about what the language meant (it's a commercial term), but the funding regime indicated that the Go8s were in pole position to become the hubs and the rest of the sector the spokes. Hubs and spokes is also known in industry as the 'master-feeder' model.
The triunary structure of US postsecondary education reflects closely socio-economic class hierarchy. There is a dominance of high SES students in the research intensive universities, middle SES in the comprehensives and low SES students in the community colleges. Research on Australian postsecondary education illustrates patterns that are not dissimilar in this regard, but which have been moderated somewhat (particularly in employment outcomes), by the collapse of the binary system brought about by the Dawkins reforms.
The problem with the triunary structure for social inclusion in education is becoming well known. Community colleges are also named technical colleges or city colleges in the US and typically offer two year degrees from which students can gain tertiary qualifications such as certificates, diplomas and associate degrees. However, they appear to be less successful in doing so compared with current institutional arrangements in Australia. In an article for The Australian that Professor Marcia Devlin and I co-wrote at the height of the debate, we revealed that:
'In 2005, a family in the lowest 20 per cent income group would have to spend 82 per cent of its annual income to send a child to a top tier Californian university and 56 per cent of their income to send a child to a second tier university ... According to 2007 research by the California State University Institute for Higher Education, 73 per cent of public school students attend community college while only 9 per cent attend the top tier university. Further, of the 70 per cent of community college students who aspire to gain a degree qualification, only one-quarter succeed within six years' (Oriel and Devlin, 'Class Struggle', The Australian, 26 November 2008).
In a recent report 'Higher education in TAFE', Dr Leesa Wheelahan, Senior Lecturer in Adult and Vocational Education at Griffith University and colleagues examine the expanding interface between universities and TAFEs, questioning what kinds of institutions will emerge in the new tertiary sector evolving as a result of the Bradley Review. They conclude that higher education degrees should be offered in TAFEs, while examining the pros and cons carefully. They explore mixed sector polytechnics and university colleges as examples of institutional arrangements that could occur in the post-Bradley environment.
The community college and polytechnic models will likely remain favoured by Go8 universities as they effectively eliminate competition for research funding and reduce pressure on Go8s to expand undergraduate intake (which would, in turn, disrupt the introduction of Harvard style degree structures). They will also likely be favoured by postsecondary institutions with limited research capacity as they create a viable space for them within a merging tertiary education market.
However, we must ask ourselves whether the community college model is beneficial for disadvantaged students, or whether it creates new blockages by ossifying socioeconomic stratification in the postsecondary education sector on the one hand while seeming to promote a socially inclusive systems architecture on the other.
The challenge remains to design a progressive tertiary education system in which social inclusion and intellectual excellence can play more than a zero sum game.