Vice-chancellors of universities across Australia are criticizing the elite Group of Eight (Go8) universities for a recent proposal to reintroduce a limit on the number of students a university can enroll, calling such a move “driven by profit” and “selfish”.

On Wednesday, the Go8 universities submitted a paper to the federal government asking for more regulation of the country’s demand-driven system, which allows universities to enroll as many students as they wish.

According to Go8 chair Michael Spence, the lifting of the cap in 2012 had caused important university research to be underfunded, as the change had caused the budget to be exceeded by billions of dollars.

“Simply enrolling more students in underfunded places is not in the best interests of the country,” said Spence, as reported by the Sydney Morning Herald.

He went on to say that Australia was “on track” to reach its goal of 40 percent of young people with an undergraduate degree by 2025.

“It’s time to declare victory on university participation and focus on the core problems for university funding,” he added.

Spence also suggested introducing quotas for the number of students studying in specific disciplines, such as teaching, nursing and allied health, claiming it would allow the government to invest more money into university research.

However, Education Minister Simon Birmingham turned down the proposal, saying that he did not want to dictate to universities how many students they should enroll.

“The demand-driven system has particularly provided low socio-economic students and Indigenous students with greater opportunities to enroll in a higher education course,” he said.

Australian Catholic University vice-chancellor Greg Craven concurred with Birmingham, and said that putting a limit on university places would block disadvantaged students from furthering their studies.

“The Group of Eight has no interest in equity or opportunity for students – this is all about money,” he said.

“This is a group of profiteers who would do anything for their own self-interest … The politics of this are cancerous.”

Charles Sturt University vice-chancellor Andrew Vann also questioned the Go8’s motives for making the suggestion, given that university enrollments appear to be stabilizing.

“This is a selfish idea because they have been naked about the fact they want to shift the money into research,” he said.

Andrew Norton, the higher education program director at Grattan Institute, also said that arbitrary limits on student numbers would be a “bad idea”.

“This would lead to more behind-the-scenes backroom deals and I’m not convinced that would be a good process,” he said.

In response, Spence said that it was not poorer students who had benefited the most from the uncapping of university places, but rather students from medium to high socio-economic backgrounds.

He recommended an overhaul of the Youth Allowance student support system as the most effective way to increase the number of low socio-economic students at local universities.

In the past, Australia’s higher education system suffered from a surging demand, with too many applicants, but not enough available spots.

Since the cap was removed, however, other concerns have arisen, such as the lowering of minimum entry standards and the rising cost of higher education forcing students to take out loans, many of which will never be repaid, further burdening the federal budget. 

Image via Flickr.

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