Australia’s universities face ‘inevitable decline’

The peak body representing Australian public universities has called on a Senate committee to back the government’s plans to lift restrictions on vice-chancellors setting their own tuition fees, warning that unless this was done “the performance, competitiveness and reputation of higher education would be condemned to a path of inevitable decline”.

In an opening statement on Thursday to the committee inquiring into the government’s controversial planned ‘reforms’, Universities Australia Chief Executive Belinda Robinson said the university sector was approaching a crossroads.

“Our universities will increasingly struggle to meet the quality and performance expectations of students, and our national research capability will continue to erode, if funding remains inadequate,” she said.

“Against a backdrop of successive governments unable or unwilling to invest in universities and research at the level needed to keep the system strong in an increasingly intense and globally competitive environment, a new approach is required.”

Provided amendments were made to improve fairness and affordability for students, the bill would allow universities to build more predictable and durable business models, less vulnerable to government funding instability, frequently changing policy and budget priorities.

Robinson told the committee that Australia was now in second last place among developed countries for the level of public investment in tertiary education – 30th out of 31 OECD countries. In addition, public investment per student had declined in real terms by 17% between 1994 and 2012.

“An under-funded university system isn't serving students, it isn't serving families, and it certainly isn't serving our economy or Australia's ability to remain globally competitive. Australia can't afford to be left behind,” she said.

Grasp the nettle

Referring to the establishment of the committee by Labor, Greens and independent senators who have rejected the changes, Robinson said opposing the bill was not a solution: it would simply defer indefinitely a problem that previous governments had failed to adequately address.

“We may not get another shot at this for some time. We are urging senators to pass the bill with amendments, including reducing the magnitude of the 20% cut in the government contributions to relieve upward pressure on fee price; maintaining the [current low] interest rate on student loans; and providing for an adjustment package to assist with the transition to a market-based system,” Robinson said.

“In amending and passing the bill, senators will create a legacy in having shaped and positioned Australia's higher education system for delivering long-term national productivity and prosperity.”

She said the “meritorious increase” in providing greater access to a university education by young people had left both major parties when in government struggling to defend the cost the system imposed on taxpayers.

Government funding per student has dropped by 14% in real terms since 1994 and, despite some increases, these had been insufficient to offset the long-term decline.

“With both major parties announcing further reductions when in government, it has become very clear to the sector that a new approach is needed to provide bottom-line insurance against frequently changing policy and budget priorities and to assure the quality and performance expectations of our students,” Robinson said.

“The sector has looked carefully and closely at the government's proposals and come to the consensus view that fee deregulation, the next logical step in higher education policy, should not be opposed.

“But we do believe that substantial improvements to the package are required.”

The concerns

She said concerns raised by students, their families and others about higher education affordability under the government’s plans would be addressed if the amendments proposed by Universities Australia were accepted.

“They are intended to ensure that no-one is deterred from enrolling at university because of price. We also believe that competitive pressures and the desire not to be priced out of the market will serve to put downward pressure on university fees.

“Nevertheless, for additional assurance, there may also be merit in amending the legislation to provide for the establishment of an independent expert advisory panel to monitor the implementation of the reforms and provide advice to the government on any policy adjustments that may be required.”

Robinson said such a panel could also be charged with the responsibility for more formally reviewing the higher education system at the appropriate time and would be consistent with the recommendation of the Office of Best Practice Regulation that a post-implementation review be completed within five years of the bill’s commencement.