Universities Australia Chair Barney Glover warned in a speech to the National Press Club on Wednesday that “almost two years of policy insecurity and uncertainty is taking its toll on the ability of universities to plan and allocate resources in their students' best interests".
He said: "It is difficult to imagine any other industry tolerating such policy instability."
Education Minister Simon Birmingham indicated last week that the government remains committed to introducing some form of fee deregulation, which would lead to a greater share of degree costs being paid by students and subsidies to universities being reduced, the Australian Financial Review reported.
But no specific new proposals have been put forward since fee deregulation was rejected by the Senate under former education minister Christopher Pyne. Last October Birmingham announced that legislation would not be reintroduced before the election, due at the latest by January 2017, saying he would consult on new policy ideas in the meantime.
The rejected bill would have enabled vice-chancellors to set their own fees, fuelling concern among students and other opponents of the bill that some degree courses could cost in excess of A$100,000 (US$74,800), leaving graduates facing a lifetime repaying debts incurred under the government loan scheme.
According to The Sydney Morning Herald, A$20 billion in savings linked to the original deregulation package, including a 20% cut to course funding, remain in the budget projections for the next decade.
Glover criticised the continuing policy vacuum and called for clarity from the major political parties on their higher education plans ahead of the upcoming election.
According to an advanced draft of the speech published by Universities Australia, he suggested that 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 A$140 billion contributor to our economy in 2014 – normal rules do not seem to apply.
Ending the policy and funding uncertainty and ensuring stability remain the sector's number one demand, he said.
“We encourage the government, and again I don't think it unreasonable, to make its position clear – sooner, rather than later,” he said.
He stressed that the time had come for a national agreement on the future of higher education, as Universities Australia has consistently emphasised in its evidence-based contribution to higher education policy development.
Glover said that Universities Australia had suggested a number of amendments to the government’s proposals.
“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. Nor is it consistent with the government's stated aim of having innovation at the heart of a strong economy.”
Glover also called for a rethink of Australia’s comparatively heavy reliance on an indirect tax incentive to foster corporate innovation – and argued the indirect tax break should be complemented by direct payments to businesses that collaborate on research with universities and public researchers.
While conceding that there are matters of continuing debate among vice-chancellors, he called for open and informed public debate beyond the university sector and between both main political parties.
He urged both parties to engage in a “sophisticated public debate and purposeful discussion on the higher education, research and indeed, innovation challenges we face today and in decades to come”.
Labor has already set out its higher education policy: it opposes deregulation of tuition fees and has pledged to drop the 20% funding cut if it gains power. This week it said its higher education plans would cost A$13.8 billion over a decade, and claimed that the Coalition’s policies would reduce spending by A$12 billion over the same period, the Australian Financial Review reported.
Patient investment needed
Glover said the recent discovery of gravitational waves and the enormous possibilities of the efforts to build the world’s largest telescope, the Square Kilometre Array, in which astronomers, including researchers from Curtin University and the University of Western Australia, “not only inspire us, but remind us of just what can be achieved when universities, researchers, industry and governments share their knowledge, combine their experience, and apply their expertise to an agreed end”.
“It reminds us that innovation not only requires deep and sustained collaboration between and beyond universities but patient and serious investment. It reminds us that we should dare to imagine what might lie beyond what we know today,” he said.
“If we are as a nation serious about our intellectual development, about research and innovation, about a new economy fuelled by ideas then we need to think about education as an essential government responsibility requiring high levels of sustained investment over the long term."
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