Top universities abandon support for government plans

The nation’s leading Group of Eight, or Go8, research-intensive universities has done a sudden about-turn in its support for the federal government’s higher education reforms and called for an independent “depoliticised” review by the learned academies and employer and business organisations.

Although the group continues to back the government’s controversial plan to deregulate tuition fees and allow vice-chancellors to set their own, it is no longer endorsing Education Minister Christopher Pyne’s reform proposals that would have extended federal funding to for-profit universities and non-university colleges, creating a United States-style system in Australia.

In a release on 31 March, the Go8 says it has consistently stated that the current funding model for Australian universities is “broken” and that is why it has supported fee deregulation “as the only long-term sustainable solution on offer”.

But the group now says the Senate has twice voted down deregulation of fees while a funding crisis continues that can only worsen with time. So a solution must be found.

“The Go8 is concerned that a number of other proposals being floated as solutions do not tackle the core issue of long-term funding satisfactorily. There is speculation that a further review process may be under consideration [yet] higher education is already one of Australia’s most reviewed sectors.”

`Rats deserting sinking ship'

The National Tertiary Education Union seized on the release to describe the Group of Eight, in a wonderful mixed metaphor, as behaving “like rats deserting a sinking ship [and] depriving Minister Pyne of his greatest cheerleaders”.

“Pyne now has no option but to dump his incoherent and desperate attempts to push on with his unprincipled, unfair and unsustainable higher education policies,” declared union President Jeannie Rea. “It is time that university leaders and the minister accept that the senate’s refusal to pass the government’s higher education policy is because it is not supported by the majority of Australian voters.”

Rea said neither Pyne nor the vice-chancellors had convinced the public that fee deregulation would benefit Australia, given that it would leave some students paying A$100,000 (US$76,300) for a degree.

“As the chaos and uncertainty brought upon [the] vocational education and training system through open market competition and subsidising for-profit private providers has proven, making deregulation the centre of any tertiary education policy is inconsistent with having a sustainable funding framework,” she said.

Call for review

In its call for a "depoliticised" review, the Go8 says this could include the Business Council of Australia, the Australian Chamber of Commerce and Industry and the Minerals Council of Australia, together with the learned academies.

“Such a review would also consider the full scope of university funding, including research funding. High quality research is vital for our nation’s future economic prosperity and the Group of Eight universities receive almost 75% of all competitive grant funding for research,” the release says.

The review should consider the nation’s willingness to invest in research in ways that enabled it to be undertaken without the current level of cross-subsidisation by teaching fees, it says. A review of this type had the potential to illustrate for the public and politicians in a much clearer way the issues currently facing the sector.

But neither the Labor Party Opposition nor Pyne have backed the review proposal. Pyne said 33 reviews into Australian higher education had been undertaken since 1950 and he could see no reason to hold another.

CEO highlights Go8 importance

In a newsletter to her vice-chancellors last week, Go8’s chief executive Vicki Thomson highlighted the influence and significance of the eight universities to Australian higher education and the wider community.

“The Go8 universities educate 25% of all higher education students in Australia and teach more than 40% of the nation’s engineering and science students, and more than 62% of all Australia’s medical, dentistry and veterinary students,” Thomson wrote.

“And of course we excel in research. In 2013, our research funding was A$2.4 billion or two-thirds of all research funding to Australian universities. More than 30,000 research students were enrolled at a Go8 university, and over half of all research degree completions were from a Go8 university."

She said these facts and figures showed why the Go8 had put so much effort into encouraging politicians to deal with the funding crisis affecting higher education.

"The percentage of students and the percentage of research the Go8 is responsible for, the value we push out into the economy, means that bad public policy or panicked band-aid political decisions which are not an effective long-term solution, negatively impact on the Go8 more than other universities," Thomson said.