Opinion article* published in The Conversation written by University of Newcastle Vice-Chancellor Professor Caroline McMillen*.

As the new government settles in, there has been heated speculation around major changes to the higher education system. Education minister Christopher Pyne’s comments to the media have raised questions across the sector about the Coalition’s vision for universities in Australia.

Universities will certainly welcome Pyne’s focus on building a more competitive international education market and reducing our regulatory burden. Government support for a concept of “earned autonomy” and an understanding that universities are prepared to be accountable for the quality of their programs and graduates would also be well-received.

However, of concern is the implication in Pyne’s statements that the demand-driven system of student funding, which has seen 190,000 more students enter our universities, is associated with a drop in quality.

As the University of Newcastle’s Vice-Chancellor I know from experience that widening access to a greater number of students has not meant compromising on quality. The percentage of students from low socio-economic (SES) backgrounds enrolled at Newcastle is 26.3%, well above the national average of 16% – but our student retention rate is above 80%. Similarly, there is only a 0.3% difference in success rates between low SES students and those from other backgrounds – indicating that widening access has done nothing to diminish student success.

It is also worth noting that our student satisfaction scores with teaching, as measured by the Good Teaching Scale of the Australian Graduate Survey, have improved by 11% since 2011 – another signal that increasing participation and a high-quality student experience are not mutually exclusive.

What the Minister’s initial comments have prompted is the need to establish a shared understanding of what defines a quality university system – a system which can face the productivity and innovation challenges that Australia will face in this next decade.

READ the full article in The Conversation.