AUSTRALIA: Education revolution begins - with a review

A full-scale review of Australia's higher education system has begun with the release this month of a discussion paper setting out the parameters. Launching the 95-page document prepared by a review committee she established, Education Minister and Deputy Prime Minister Julia Gillard said: "We want to make sure there is a vision for our universities for the next 15, 20 years. We want that vision to include the ability of the poorest Australians to be able to aspire to go to university and have a fair chance of doing so. We want that vision to be one of universities leading the way with research that makes a difference to our lives..."

Gillard said the review was part of the Labor government's "education revolution" it had promised to initiate before last November's election - an election that saw the former conservative government thrown out of office and its Prime Minister John Howard lose his own seat.

"We know that through the last decade under the former government, universities have done it tough," she said. "Universities have faced a hostile environment, they have been micromanaged, they have been forced to accept Work Choices, the government's extreme industrial relations agenda.

"But they haven't been valued and they haven't had a chart for the future laid out; a map of the future and where it should lead for our great universities. The Rudd Labor Government is committed to changing that."

Brave words. Australia's vice-chancellors and their 85,000 academic and general staff will be intensely interested to see whether the outcome means increased resources for a seriously under-funded system. Or whether, as with many of the previous government-initiated reviews, little will change.

The discussion paper offers few clues about increased funding. It describes the current situation of universities and other higher education providers and then, in 15 relatively brief but clearly summarised sections, it outlines the strategic context and the key challenges facing universities. Each section ends with a series of questions - 35 in total - that focus on particular issues those making submissions might wish to respond to.

The paper says among the challenges facing universities are demographic projections that indicate little increase in domestic demand for education and training from the traditional school-leaver cohort over the medium to longer term, with university participation rates remaining fairly static.

"This suggests a need to broaden the base of participation if overall levels of educational attainment are to be increased," it says. "The decline in the traditional student group could be offset by increased participation of older adults (that is, those 25 years and above) who are entering or returning to higher education..."

Discussing globalisation and its impact on research and development, the paper notes that while Australian universities perform well on many international measures, they have to confront the limited scale of their research teams and facilities, and, "with some important exceptions", the relatively low international visibility of its university research enterprises.

"Global mobility of staff, students and resources, is also increasing the level of international competition in the higher education industry," the paper says.

"There are growing numbers of higher education providers offering services internationally, major institutions from the US, UK and Europe establishing campuses and partnerships in Asian countries and elsewhere in direct competition with Australian providers, and rapid development of higher education capacity within the countries which have been key markets for Australia."

Response from the higher education community was generally favourable - probably because the paper did not indicate the committee was pushing a particular line that might impact on the various interest groups. Some concern was expressed, however, by the paper raising the contentious issue of teaching-only universities and the suggestion that money for research should be allocated to universities that demonstrate high performance in research and a research operation large enough to be competitive in the international arena.

"While there is little support for 'teaching only' universities in Australia, there has been no evidence of a rejection of teaching only higher education providers and, indeed, the numbers of students in such institutions have grown," the paper says.

The committee is headed by Professor Denise Bradley, former vice-chancellor of the University of South Australia, with three other non-university people. It is to provide a draft report to Gillard by October and a final statement with recommendations before the end of the year.

*The discussion paper is available at: