'Too many people going to university': business head

Australian universities are enrolling too many domestic students who should opt for vocational education and training instead, a leading business figure says.

Catherine Livingstone, the new Business Council of Australia president, said a large number of school leavers would be better off undertaking education and training that gave them job-related and technical skills first.

At an Australia-Israel Chamber of Commerce lunch in Sydney last week, Ms Livingstone gave her first major speech as BCA president to argue that building innovation infrastructure would ensure a strong and competitive economy in a rapidly changing world. She said better teaching of science, technology, engineering and mathematics was an essential part of this push.

Catherine Livingstone of the Business Council of Australia. Picture: GETTY IMAGES

Catherine Livingstone of the Business Council of Australia. Picture: GETTY IMAGES

In an interview she said urgent intervention was needed in the education and training system as early as kindergarten, to protect future prosperity.

Asked about the government’s plans to allow universities to set their own fees, Ms Livingstone said the price signal would give school leavers a greater opportunity to weigh up the benefits of different types of education.

"I would say there are too many people going to university and not enough going through the VET system," she said. "It does not preclude them from later entry into the university system. I just think some students would be better off with vocation and skill training and having work experience."

Ms Livingstone, however, expressed concern about postgraduate university students paying fees for the first time and the "unintended consequences" of certain decisions, such as the cuts to high level research having a disproportionate impact on collaborative research programs with business and other institutions. She said Australia needed to support a greater number of students undertaking high-end research.

Her comments were made before a speech by Group of Eight universities chairman Ian Young to the National Press Club last week when he revealed that many elite universities, such as his own Australian National University, would probably enrol fewer students under a deregulated fee system.

The enrolment figures of Australia's top research universities, such as ANU, Sydney and Melbourne, exceed world standards; they typically reach up to 50,000 students, compared to Stanford in the US with 15,000.

This is because, under the capped fee system, universities must enrol huge numbers of students to subsidise their research programs.

If elite universities are allowed to increase their fees then they will be able to reduce the size of their institutions and offer a more personalised learning experience, Professor Young said. This is exactly what some of his fellow vice-chancellors have told him they will do.

He said this downsizing would have a "trickle-down" effect throughout the university sector and lead to more high-achieving students attending regional and suburban universities.

"In a sense, if you’re not a Group of Eight university that should be good news, because what it means is it’s going to free up in the future more capable students for other institutions," he said. "I think there will be a trickle-down or a flow-across effect as a result of that, and I think that will be good for the quality of education we provide and indeed for the quality of research we provide."

Regional Universities Network chairman Peter Lee said he was "very sceptical" about Professor Young's predictions.

Professor Lee, who is the vice-chancellor at Southern Cross University, said any slimming down at elite universities would happen gradually over a long time frame.

He said he doubts that regional universities would benefit from a "trickle down" of high-achieving students who could no longer find a place at elite universities.

Smartphone
Tablet - Narrow
Tablet - Wide
Desktop