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Victoria leads the pack

The state with arguably the least need to increase its higher education student numbers has experienced by far the biggest growth, new data shows.

Victoria is home to four of the seven fastest growing universities this year, according to figures compiled by The HES. RMIT, Deakin, La Trobe and Swinburne universities feature among the seven institutions that experienced at least 10 per cent growth in early and main round offers administered through the tertiary admissions centres.

With an increase of 18.3 per cent, RMIT is by far the fastest growing university in Australia on this measure, which doesn’t take account of late and direct offers. The surge occurred even though Victoria has already passed the ‘Bradley’ attainment target for 40 per cent of 25-34 year-olds to have degree-level qualifications by 2025.

Victoria lags only the ACT in education levels, with almost a quarter of adults up to the age of 64 holding degrees. Almost three quarters of its 25-34 year-olds have some type of tertiary qualification, compared to a national average of just over two thirds.

Former University of Melbourne vice-chancellor Kwong Lee Dow, who led a panel advising on a state tertiary education plan, estimated a couple of years ago that Victoria was already past the Bradley target.

However Professor Lee Dow’s report found that Victoria would need to do more than its share of the heavy lifting if the nation as a whole was to achieve the target. His panel found that achieving 40 per cent attainment across the country would necessitate a rate of 46.5 per cent in Victoria. And it found the state would have to reach 47 per cent attainment to meet its own industry and workforce needs.

Andrew Norton, higher education program director with the Grattan Institute, said Victorian universities were taking advantage of the government’s new funding system to address historically high levels of unmet demand. Mr Norton said universities hadn’t been able to meet the demand of Victorians, partly because of a commonwealth policy – which persisted until the middle of last decade – of trying to equalise attainment rates between the states.

“They were allocating new places to states that have relatively low attainment, regardless of actual demand,” he said. “Tasmania was being given all these places it couldn’t use, while across Bass Strait people were missing out because Victoria already had high attainment. So you had Victorians going to Tasmania to get into university.”

Mr Norton said the uncapped system would allow the supply of university places to reach a more natural level. He said 10 per cent increases were to be expected in the first year of the new system, and he’d been surprised that some universities had jumped the gun and expanded rapidly over the past two years.

Swinburne deputy vice-chancellor Shirley Leitch said universities were also using the new system to ramp up alternative modes of higher education delivery, such as the new Swinburne Online partnership. Professor Leitch said Swinburne’s Hawthorne campus was the most dense and “vertical” in Australia, and online delivery had been crucial to the university’s expansion plans. Swinburne’s direct entry offers have more than doubled this year.

Suburban Victorian universities also appear to have benefited from an overflow of unsuccessful applicants to the University of Melbourne, which increased its offers only marginally. Mr Norton said Victorian universities could also be compensating for a loss of international students, which have constituted a particularly high proportion of students at universities like Swinburne and RMIT.

“If they feel they’re losing international numbers, they may use the excess capacity to take domestics rather than sack staff and all the other difficult decisions,” he said.

Mr Norton said Victoria’s consistently high unmet demand levels were a consequence of high school retention rates, which in turn appeared to be related to traditionally high levels of private schooling. This was possibly a consequence of slow development of the public schooling system in the first half of the 20th century, he said.

The HES obtained the offers data directly from universities, as most tertiary admissions centres don’t release up-to-date statistics at the institutional level. All but seven universities provided the HES with broad trend data. But many didn’t release raw figures, with one – the Australian Catholic University, which has been up-front about its expansion plans – labelling this information “commercial in confidence”.

Universities also varied in the types and timing of the offers they disclosed, making comparisons difficult. Mr Norton said the paucity of offers data illustrated the need for comparable and prompt higher education statistics, particularly as Australia waded into the untested waters of demand-driven admission.

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