Political upheaval holds hope for universities

When Julia Gillard, Australia’s first female prime minister, was deposed as head of government last month by the man she had forced from office three years previously almost to the day, it not only gave Kevin Rudd a second shot as PM but also raised the hopes of the nation’s vice-chancellors.

One of Rudd’s first decisions, following the palace coup and the resignations of half of Gillard’s former cabinet, was to reappoint Senator Kim Carr as minister for innovation, industry, science and research – a role he had formerly held but resigned from when Rudd lost office.

Rudd also elevated him to minister for higher education, which gives Carr almost unlimited power over the sector.

The new minister gained some plaudits when he intimated to Rupert Murdoch’s The Australian newspaper that Gillard’s plan to slash A$3.8 billion (US$3.5 billion) from spending on universities and student support might be reviewed and that the student demand-based system she had introduced could be re-capped.

Under this system, any student applying for university is admitted if the institution believes she or he is capable. This has led to a sharp fall in the marks a school-leaver requires to gain admittance and allowed an additional 190,000 students to undertake higher education courses.

Carr expressed concern that many of the newcomers were probably unprepared for university study.

In an editorial last week, The Australian endorsed the idea of re-capping enrolments and claimed that the demand-based system had compromised “academic rigour” – this from a paper that had agitated continually against the Gillard government using its leader and news pages unashamedly to disparage her and almost every decision she made.

Murdoch’s News Corporation owns 70% of Australia’s metropolitan newspapers and he uses them constantly to further his own interests. With an election due sometime in the next few months, all of his papers had been backing the conservative Opposition and attacking Gillard.

They have mostly adopted a muted response to Rudd taking over, while Australia’s main higher education lobby groups have welcomed his and especially Carr’s return. Universities Australia Chief Executive Belinda Robinson applauded Carr’s track record on supporting science and research.

Referring to the A$3.8 billion “worth of higher education savings” announced by the Gillard government over the past eight months – and the failure of the Opposition to reject them – Robinson called for a review of the budget measures that have yet to be legislated.

“The eight out of 10 Australians who believe that budget cuts to higher education threaten Australia’s future will be looking to Mr Rudd and Senator Carr to reconsider these short-sighted decisions,” she said.

“We look forward to Senator Carr revisiting and renewing his visionary agenda.” And, in a reference to the influx of students from poorer families: “We also look forward to working with him to make sure that all children who aspire to a world-class university education will have the opportunity to do so, regardless of their background, post code, or socioeconomic circumstances.”

The National Tertiary Education Union (NTEU) likewise warmly greeted Carr’s appointment, with its president, Jeannie Rea, noting he had “a demonstrated track record of deep knowledge and commitment to the key role of universities in education, research and innovation”.

Rea said the government had justified the planned cuts to university spending by claiming that the budget faced a A$480 million shortfall as a result of the unexpected rise in enrolments under the demand-driven system. She said it was unreasonable for already heavily overworked university staff to be asked to bear the costs because of inefficient budget forecasting.

“What NTEU members find even more unfair is that some of the most disadvantaged students have been targeted by the latest cuts. The government will save A$1.2 billion by abolishing the student start-up scholarships, which provided support for the most financially disadvantaged students in receipt of income support.”

The chair of the Group of Eight research-intensive universities, Professor Fred Hilmer, similarly praised Carr for his previous work in boosting indirect funding for research and for establishing the research quality assessment framework.

“The senator’s efforts in the past have also been largely credited with fostering investments in bigger and better state-of-the-art research facilities,” Hilmer said. “We are confident that he understands the imperative for Australia to keep pace with the world leaders...[and are] also encouraged by his indication to revisit the May cuts to higher education.”

Other vice-chancellors backed retention of the demand-driven system.

The chair of the Innovative Research Universities group, Professor Barney Glover, said the challenge of effective funding of Australia’s universities would not to be tackled by “retreating to a system of allocating universities a limited numbers of university places.

“Demand-driven funding works. Let’s not ruin it. The system was a major reform of the government and one of the few accepted by both sides of politics. There is no sense undermining it to address a funding pressure that is now almost past,” Glover said.

Most universities had already started drawing up plans to cope with the proposed funding cuts.

The Australian National University (ANU) caused dismay among its staff and students by announcing last week that it faced a A$51 million fall in income over the next two years and would have to slash the number of professional staff by at least 10%, with up to 250 jobs to go before the end of the year.

The education union said staff over the age of 55, “the longest-serving members of the university”, would be among the first to be targeted. “The loss of corporate knowledge will be devastating,” said Deborah Veness, the union’s branch president.

But ANU Vice-chancellor Professor Ian Young said the package of cuts had been “shaped by staff and student input” and would deal with the immediate financial challenge while also setting the university on a path to renewal and growth.

“This budget package will return the university to a balanced budget position by 2015,” Young said.

Veness said the cuts would mean a reduced workforce, staff members compelled to take accumulated leave, an increase in student numbers and the implementation of new systems that would put unreasonable pressure on remaining staff.

“The union deplores the cuts to funding for the higher education sector that have forced the ANU to make these drastic decisions,” she said.

“The consequences for students and staff are ominous. The ANU prepares graduates to be future custodians of disciplinary knowledge within the academy, where they go on to become researchers or university teachers, or to take their disciplinary knowledge into the workplace to solve the problems of industry, government, and society.”