Margaret Gardner has a message for the minister
Universities Australia chair and Monash U, VC Margaret Gardner has warned the government against tinkering with the university system which delivers, “internationally competitive research and education, a major services export; and the foundation of national capabilities for future innovation and resilience.”
“Tertiary education has become a site for piecemeal reform and policy experimentation, often without sufficient design thinking or open deliberation about what goals we are seeking to achieve and what new circumstances we really face,” Professor Gardner told an AFR conference yesterday.
“Australian policy makers and pundits must ask themselves how many other sectors of national endeavour match this breadth and depth of international performance. And before they attempt to ‘reform,’ ask how these reforms will affect that performance.”
And she warned that while governments talk of “quality and value for money,” “the subtext, writ large in recent years, has been fiscal constraint and budget repair due to rising costs in other areas of government spending.”
Professor Gardner also warns that with government focusing on finance not the future, higher education faces a risk that, “our university sector will continue to be seen by governments mostly as a source for further savings for federal budgets, driven by extraneous budget repair priorities. Policy starting from the view that the sector can always be made to wear cuts or can export more to counter any future funding shortfall.”
And with government ducking the debate on how to build on the system’s present success, (“it will not start from the reform proposals before us now”) it is up to universities.
“We in higher education cannot and should not abdicate to others the shaping of this debate. It is in or hands. It is our mission to seek to define the future, not just for our universities but for that better future to which university education and research is committed, that is our goal. It is the big challenges, the big questions, and the bold goals that should be the focus of a university system on whose strength Australia can rely.”
And Simon Birmingham has one for unis: “freedoms come with responsibilities and consequences”
The Education Minister will stick to the script in his speech to the AFR conference this morning, arguing his proposed cuts are manageable, only reduce the rate of funding growth, and follow extensive consultation. And Senator Birmingham will add that the deficit the government is addressing is partly a problem of universities making.
“I appreciate that nobody likes receiving less funding, even if it is only a slightly slower rate of growth than would otherwise have been the case. However, the sector is kidding itself if it thinks the pressure to address the contribution escalating higher education spending made to the budget deficit will just go away.”
The minister also argued that the future of the demand driven system depended on his proposals.
“If you want to maintain equity of access with no upfront fee barriers, then you should support our HELP reforms. If you want to maintain and expand the autonomy of a demand driven model then you should support our budget sustainability reforms. And if you want to build student, government and community confidence in the demand driven system then you should support our plans for performance contingent funding.”
He argued that his plan to tie 7.5 per cent of Commonwealth Grant Scheme funding to performance measures,” will provide incentives for universities to do even more to improve rates of retention, completion, student satisfaction and employment outcomes.”
It is “good for students” and “entirely consistent with university autonomy,” the minister will say.
If Senator Birmingham has not got the cross-bench numbers he needs to pass the key parts of his package he is not letting on.