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You are reading: Trends in Student Enrolments for Australian Bachelor Degrees: Is the present growth strategy sustainable?

Written by Emeritus Professor Frank Larkins, LH Martin Institute


On the 13th March 2008 the then Commonwealth Minister for Education, Julia Gillard announced a major review of the Australian Higher Education (AHE) system to be chaired by Professor Emeritus Denise Bradley. The goal was to report on the fitness for purpose of the AHE system to meet the needs of the Australian community and economy with options for ongoing reforms. The final report, entitled Review of Australian Higher Education, was presented to the minister on 17th December 2008 (1). Major recommendations focussed on policies needed to increase the participation of young Australians in higher education to raise skills levels to meet the challenges associated with a global economy. A target of 40 per cent of 25-to-34 year olds attaining at least a bachelor-level qualification by 2020 was recommended along with 20 per cent of undergraduate student enrolments coming from low socioeconomic backgrounds by 2020.

The Rudd Labor Government responded in 2009 with a policy paper entitled Transforming Australia’s Higher Education System outlining the proposed AHE reforms (2). They endorsed a 40 per cent attainment target for 25-to-34 year olds to be qualified at least at bachelor level by 2025 and the 20 per cent socioeconomic target. Central to achieving these reforms were the promotion of a student-driven system coupled with funded places for all eligible domestic students at a public HE provider. The student income support framework was also to be changed. The aim was to achieve an extra 50,000 new commencing degree students by 2013, while promoting the long term low socioeconomic participation goal.

Some overall analyses of student enrolment trends and outcomes have been undertaken in recent time. A paper by ACER researchers Edwards and Radloff in 2013 (3) examined higher education domestic undergraduate enrolment growth and the role of the private higher education providers, especially from 2009 to 2012. They highlight that private providers have more non-bachelor enrolments than public universities in their undergraduate cohort and that student growth has not had a significant adverse impact on the quality of outcomes. A major conclusion by these authors was that ‘Australia remains some way off achieving either of the targets set at the end of the last decade’. Andrew Norton and colleagues of the Grattan Institute provide a valuable detailed overview of the state of AHE in 2014, including in chapter 2 student trends and enrolment numbers. They report that the government policy change has led to a rapid increase in enrolments in the period 2009 to 2013 (4).

In this paper we report on the enrolment trends for domestic and overseas students, principally at the bachelor degree level, since this is the area of primary focus for the policy reform. The latest enrolment data up to 2013, released in 2015, are sourced from the Commonwealth Department of Education website (5).

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Larkins, F. P. 2015. Trends in Student Enrolments for Australian Bachelor Degrees: Is the present growth strategy sustainable? LH Martin Institute, The University of Melbourne, Melbourne, Australia.