Australia's 38 public universities face an upheaval on a scale they have not experienced in 20 years under bold new government plans. The main goal in a set of wholesale reforms to the nation's higher education system is the government's intention to boost the number of Australians aged 25 to 34 with bachelor degrees from 32% of the population to 40% over the next 15 years – an enormous challenge given it would mean producing an additional 550,000 graduates by 2025 – and perhaps require more than 20 new universities. Federal Education Minister Julia Gillard announced some of the reforms last Wednesday in an address to a conference organised by the vice-chancellors organisation, Universities Australia. In the first of a series of three speeches she intends to make, Gillard set out the government's initial responses to recommendations arising from a review of higher education she commissioned after the Labor government was elected in November 2007. The review was headed by Professor Denise Bradley, former vice-chancellor of the University of South Australia, and her report was released last December. Gillard welcomed the review at the time and has now promised to begin implementing some of its radical recommendations.
'In an era when investment in knowledge and skills promises to be the ultimate determinant of national and individual prosperity, Australia is losing ground against our competitors,' said Gillard said. 'National participation and attainment in higher education is too low. We are losing touch with the OECD's leaders in higher education: between 1996 and 2006, we slipped from seventh in the OECD in terms of attainment among 25-34 year olds to ninth.' Other comparable nations had exacting targets for participation in recent years,' said Gillard. Germany had set its target at 40%, Sweden and the UK at 50% while the Irish were aiming at 72%. She said that in Australia, too few young people from disadvantaged backgrounds were enrolling in higher education while completion rates, estimated by the Bradley review to be less than three in every four students who started at university, were unacceptably low.