In pursuit of quality: the influences of Federal government policy on universities' student selection processes

Year: 2012

Author: Pitman, Tim, Vidovich, Lesley

Type of paper: Abstract refereed


Discourses of 'quality' have risen to prominence in higher education policies internationally. In Australia, recent reforms by the Federal Labor Government have brought the policy priority of 'quality' in higher education into sharp focus: witness the establishment of the Tertiary Education Quality and Standards Agency as a powerful new regulator. However, discourses of equity have also been prioritised, most notably the equity target to increase the proportion of students from lower socio-economic backgrounds to 20 percent, by 2020. This has thrown institutional policies and processes of student selection and admission into sharp relief, predicated in great part by a belief in a direct relationship between the quality of the student at commencement and the quality of subsequent educational outcomes.

The data underpinning this study came from key international documents and national policies addressing quality in higher education, institutional admission policy documents, and interviews with relevant institutional policy actors. Four universities were chosen as case studies, each one belonging to a different alliance grouping. Critical theoretical perspectives, and critical discourse analysis of data, framed the qualitative study. Key findings from the research indicated that there were diverse conceptualisations of 'quality' and 'equity' across the four institutions, with certain discourses being prioritised over others. Furthermore, whilst the issues of quality and equity both played a part in the selection of students, quality was clearly prioritised in the processes, with many actors believing the pursuit of equity agendas will be to the detriment of 'quality education'. The drivers for enacting 'quality-driven' admission policies were a mixture of fiscal (e.g. Federal Government funding), ideological/cultural (e.g. an epistemological prioritisation of certain types of knowledge) and strategic (e.g. reputational markers such as university ranking systems). In universities, different policy actors recognised different drivers; however at the government level, a far more precise definition of quality existed, one which has the potential to exclude many worthwhile students.

The paper concludes with a consideration of the implications these findings have for higher education policy and practices in Australia. These include the consequences for institutional funding and accountability, and the extent to which fiscal, ideological and strategic drivers might be aligned (and which of these will dominate if they cannot). A major recommendation by the researchers is that the Federal Government should resist enacting more than one major higher education agenda simultaneously, given the potential for conflict and 'cognitive dissonance' within the higher education sector.