From the Vice-Chancellor: Look to the long term
A year is a very long time in higher education.
Over the past 12 months, the Federal Government has established two key reviews involving the higher ed sector - the Cutler Review into innovation and the Bradley Review into higher education.
The final reports of both reviews have been handed down and, as I write this column, the sector is expectantly awaiting the Government's response.
The Cutler report, which I strongly endorse, recommends full funding of research so we would no longer need to dip into teaching funds to fill that gap. It would improve the quality of both teaching and research and remove a major distortion from the system. This is one of the most crucial recommendations of either report, and if acted upon it would assist in helping Australia to reclaim some of the ground it has lost against other, more competitive, fully funded research nations. If the Government adopts only one thing out of these reports, I hope it will be this.
The Bradley review, if adopted in full, has some potential to alter the character of the higher education sector, not least helping to free it up and make it more responsive to student needs and to our own wishes.
As far as I see it, the main features of the new system under the Bradley review are: national performance targets and a more performance-oriented sector; increased institutional funding from 2010; student centered/demand-driven funding; increased student financial support; and a national accreditation body, with universities needing to be accredited and the Commonwealth assuming regulatory power from the States.
Some of the more welcome proposals from the Bradley review include reintroducing meaningful indexation - to better cover increasing costs - and sorting out the mess that is student funding support.
The proposal that University funding be student-centred through the so-called "voucher" scheme sits well with the University of Adelaide because this University is in high demand from school leavers. Of course, students can already apply to any university, but the voucher system can only work effectively if quotas are removed. Quotas are determined from Canberra and control precisely how many Australian students we can admit to each area of study. Quotas have limited our ability to be responsive and flexible and have driven the demand for full fee places. Quotas should be removed or at least made much more flexible.
On the whole the Bradley report disappoints because it too often stops short of the logical end-point needed for a complete overhaul of the sector. If we are to grow the sector significantly then much more imaginative and wide ranging initiatives will be needed. Despite being a disappointment, many of the report's proposals will be helpful and should be supported.
If a year is a very long time in higher education, it's also a very long time in the global economy - since the Government established these reviews we have witnessed the emergence of a global financial crisis. The potential implications for Government funding are readily apparent; the full range of measures proposed in the Bradley review at this stage exceeds $6 billion annually for the sector.
How will the Government respond? It's anybody's guess at this stage, but whatever happens in the short term, the Government's response to these reviews must look to the long term. The global crisis may well worsen before it gets better, but when recovery eventually arrives the role of higher education will be vital in helping to sustain it.
PROFESSOR JAMES A. McWHA
Vice-Chancellor and President