Commission of Audit special

The Commission of Audit does not take an axe to universities.

The Commissioners have nothing to say on the mass of issues that exercise the sector, confining proposals largely to student funding and research administration. The guts of it is in volume one  which calls for retaining demand driven funding but reducing the Commonwealth contribution per student from 59 per cent to 45 per cent and increasing what they pay from 41 per cent to 55 per cent.

The Commissioners also passes the problem/opportunity of deregulating fees to the minister.

As for securitising HELP debt the Commission rejects the idea, arguing that a buyer would demand a discount on book value or require a subsidy from government to make a return on student payments. However it wants more students to pay more debt faster. The CoA advocates replacing the CPI as the interest rate on HELP loans with a figure covering all the Commonwealth’s costs (borrowing rate, bad debts, administration).

The Commission also proposes reducing the repayment threshold to the minimum wage ($32,000 pa) with a 2.5 per cent of income payment. This would increase with earnings until it reached the 4 per cent repayment, which now starts at $51,000. It also backs the idea, recently set out by Andrew Norton, of recovering student debt from deceased estates.

As to research, the CoA starts from the premise that science and industry do not need public funding to collaborate. The Commission accordingly calls for abolition of Industry Innovation Precincts, Collaborative Research Networks and support for international scientific collaboration. It also wants CSIRO research better aligned to Commonwealth priorities and funding directed to public rather than private benefit.

Just about the only other recommendations include “aligning” NHMRC and ARC grant processes and allowing longer term grants, “streamlining” research block grants and postgraduate scholarships and to “better align” funding for direct and indirect research costs and “providing long term certainty around the funding of research infrastructure”.

That’s about it, although fans of Austrade’s “Future unlimited” export education campaign will not like the Commission’s view that its $360m budget is not value for money and that Austrade should be shut or radically cut (recommendation 31). Cooperative Research Centres should also be alarmed and annoyed. The Commission proposes ending the program and allocating funds via Australia Research Council’s Linkage program.

Disclosure: I was retained by the Commission of Audit to work on drafting the CoA report.

Know something the world needs to know? Anonymity guaranteed but lots of questions asked, stephen4@hotkey.net.au