“It is difficult to imagine any other industry tolerating such policy instability”. A leading academic calls for clarity on Australian university funding
Mar 10, 2016 | News | by The Learning Press staff
Universities are being damaged and students hurt by a lack of clarity on funding, a leading academic has warned.
In a keynote speech to the National Press Club in Canberra, Universities Australia chair Barney Glover argued that almost two years of policy uncertainty was ‘taking its toll’ on the ability of Australian universities to plan and to serve students’ interests.
“It is difficult to imagine any other industry tolerating such policy instability,” said the Western Sydney University vice-chancellor.
“Yet when it comes to higher education - the majority contributor to Australia's third largest export industry, the cornerstone of Australia's innovation future, and a $140 billion contributor to our economy in 2014 - the rules are different.”
Professor Glover warned the main political parties to urgently detail their plans for higher education funding.
He said: “We encourage the Government, and I don't think it unreasonable, to make its position clear - sooner, rather than later.”
However, education minister Simon Birmingham told guests at a Universities Australia dinner this week: “I am determined the process I undertake will be neither rushed nor involve surprises.”
He agreed reform of the sector was needed to ensure budget sustainability and to “support innovation, promote equity, and protect quality”.
In the wake of the Abbot Government’s failure to pass its fee deregulation bill in the Senate, the sector has been left in limbo as Senator Birmingham formulates a new higher education plan.
The minister has intimated that the balance between what students and government pay for higher education is still under consideration.
Professor Glover acknowledged that the minister has “broadly consulted with stakeholders as he considers options for change”, but warned that cutting public investment in universities should not be part of the debate.
“The sector will never accept that maintaining the level of quality expected by our students, employers and the community can be achieved through reducing the level (of) public investment in universities,” he said.
“Nor is it consistent with the Government's stated aim of having innovation at the heart of a strong economy.”
As chair of the peak representative body for Australian universities, Professor Glover said lobbying for policy and funding certainty was the sector’s number one priority.
“It is important to note, that despite the Senate's opposition, the reforms in their original form continue to be Government policy as reflected in financial and budget papers,” he said.
“With Senate reform looming, these are far from 'dead in the water' - as some have suggested. What we don't yet know, is whether these will continue to be the Government's position in the lead up to the election.”
Vice-Chancellors across the country have very differing ideas of how university reform should look and Professor Glover acknowledged they did not have all the answers - calling for an informed public debate on the issue.
He said the Federal opposition had released a “comprehensive” higher education policy but argued questions remained around base funding and the means for sustaining the system long term.
“The time has come for a national agreement on the future of higher education in this country,” he said.
“With an election in the offing, I take this opportunity on behalf of Universities Australia to urge both parties to engage in a sophisticated public debate and purposeful discussion on the higher education challenges we face today and in decades to come.”
While remaining tight-lipped on the details of the Government’s higher education policy, Senator Birmingham has warned universities that he will take action if the sector fails to address concerns over admissions policies, saying they are seen by students as "opaque as a double-frosted window".