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Comparing accessibility and funding of Australian higher education

Comparing accessibility and funding of Australian higher education

Research 3 minute read
Australian higher education is more accessible than in many other OECD countries, especially when age is considered, according to an ACER Joining the Dots research briefing paper.

The paper, by ACER Research Fellow Eva van der Brugge and ACER Principal Research Fellow Dr Daniel Edwards, analysed data from the 2011 Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development Education at a Glance series, which uses comparable data collected globally in 2009.

Figure 1: Age distribution of new entrants to higher educationTheir analysis found the age of entry into higher education varies widely across countries. As such, the relatively large spread of ages among new entrants to higher education in Australia in comparison to the OECD average serves to demonstrate one of the key aspects of our system – it offers pathways at numerous stages in life for students who often enter higher education after time in the workforce.

In contrast, Japan and Korea have a much more narrow distribution of age at entry, suggesting students are encouraged to proceed to university straight after high school and that fewer pathways may be available to nonschool applicants.

According to van der Brugge and Dr Edwards, the broad age range of people accessing higher education in Australia indicates that there is a level of flexibility and opportunity built into higher education that does not exist in some of the European and Asian higher education systems.

The analysis also revealed that Australia’s relatively high bachelor degree attainment levels are now above the OECD average. This is a recent phenomenon compared with other nations that have been achieving higher attainment for a number of generations. In 2009 Australia’s higher education attainment rates were comparable with nations like the United Kingdom, Korea and Canada, but lower than Norway, the United States and the Netherlands.

Figure 2: Expenditure on tertiary education institutions as a percentage of GDPAccording to van der Brugge and Dr Edwards, Australia’s increased tertiary participation has been achieved despitethe fact that, as a proportion of gross domestic product (GDP), expenditure on tertiary education has been in decline for the past two decades.

In 2008 Australia’s total expenditure on tertiary education as a percentage of GDP was just under 1.5 per cent – about the same as the OECD average and markedly less than expenditure in the US (around 2.7 per cent), Canada and Korea (each around 2.5 per cent). Further analysis of expenditure shows that Australian tertiary education is relatively underfunded by the public purse, which contributed 0.7 per cent of GDP in 2008, while countries such as Canada, Norway and Sweden contributed about twice as much public funding.

As van der Brugge and Dr Edwards note, however, ‘As Australia’s higher education system continues to expand, it would be expected that funding will grow, but whether this expectation becomes a reality will not be known until new comparative data is available.’

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