Demand Driven System increasing university enrolment without improving student support services

Indigenous and rural students in particular are being left behind by the system.

Students need to be better supported before and during study to prevent a rise in dropout rates according to a recent report on the national university Demand Driven System. 

The system was given a ‘mixed report card’ last week by the Productivity Commission which outlined that while the program’s uncapping of university places has resulted in a larger number of students being enrolled in university, it has also seen a higher dropout rate amongst those who have accessed university education as a result of the system compared to other students.

A lack of support for students during their time at university since coalition funding cuts to student financial assistance and support services were made in 2017, has prevented the Demand Driven System from having an overarching positive impact on student success at university. 

Though the system has determined that more students from low SES backgrounds, students with lower ATAR scores and those who are the first in their family to attend university are benefiting from the system through university entries, many are more likely to discontinue their studies before completion.

As a result, universities have seen students struggling to complete their degrees and a decline in the number of rural and Indigenous students in particular accessing tertiary education. 

“We strongly support the policy intent behind the ‘demand-driven’ system of funding – to increase rates of higher education participation and success in Australia generally,” a university spokesperson told Honi.

“However we are very concerned about the cuts made by successive governments to funding for student income support, support services and other important programs.”

 A statement released by the National Union of Students (NUS) last Monday suggests that though the Demand Driven System allowed a larger number of students to attend university, the program did not encourage universities to invest more in student support. 

For rural and Indigenous students, the continuation of the system under these funding cuts makes completing a degree particularly difficult due to the high relocation costs of preparing for university. Many of these students, once they begin their degree, must also handle living expenses, often juggling long hours in casual employment with a full time university workload.

“Following the Coalition Government’s introduction of freeze on Commonwealth Grant Scheme (CGS) funding from 2018, demand-driven funding has continued in name only,” said a university spokesperson. 

 “Today, once a university reaches the annual cap on its CGS funding set by the Government, it only receives the student contribution for each student enrolled above the cap.”

If this system remains the way it is, a strong financial disincentive for universities to enrol  Commonwealth-Supported domestic students beyond the cap will continue. The limits affects students studying various scientific and agricultural fields in particular because they require a higher commonwealth contribution. Under the current system, universities are working to reach higher enrolment instead of focussing on the facilities and numbers required to provide quality education.

“In the current funding environment, universities are operating more like businesses, focussing on raising enrolments to secure more funding,” said NUS President Desiree Cai in a public statement. 

In addition, students studying at TAFE remain exempt from the system, leaving the country’s major vocational training organisation, already struggling to stay afloat, with no ongoing support. One of the reports major recommendations suggested that this institution be included in the program.

“Evidence suggests current and future generations of Australians will be hard-pressed to secure good, well-paying, jobs unless they have a tertiary education,” the university spokesperson told Honi

“We believe there is a strong case for higher levels of public investment in tertiary education and research and for the federal, state and territory governments to take a much more strategic, cooperative and integrated approach to funding and regulating the system as a whole.”