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Universities Australia response to audit report

2 May 2014

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Universities Australia (UA) has “welcomed” aspects of the report of the Commission of Audit, such as the recommendation that issues concerning partial or full fee deregulation be “further investigated” rather than deregulation be implemented willy nilly. It’s queried the recommendation that the average student contribution be increased from 41% to 55%, in the absence of the case having been made for the increase or the proportion (that is, it’s seemingly a figure plucked out of the air). In a similar vein, UA notes that, while the recommendations on reducing the cost to government of HELP provide” a logical basis for further consideration, the outcome should not undermine the fundamental premise of the HELP system in making higher education affordable.” It welcomes the report’s acknowledgement of the very important role of basic research recognising that not all beneficial research will be undertaken by the private sector but suggests further clarification on some of the recommendations is required, for example, in relation to streamlining the current system of block grants, postgraduate scholarships and aligning funding for the direct and indirect costs of research. However, the recommendation to do away with Cooperative Research Centres is a cause of some consternation:
The Cooperative Research Centre programme has withstood the test of time as a highly effective approach to research/industry collaboration. Additionally, the abolition of the Collaborative Research Networks programme will reduce the capacity of smaller and regional universities to undertake collaborative research that directly benefits local communities.

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UA

Universities Australia supports a number of the recommendations of the Commission of Audit and sees the Report’s release as an opportunity for the university sector to work jointly with the Government in progressing its higher education agenda.

“In considering the report, front of mind for Government will be the need to ensure that reform action advances the world-class standing and international competitiveness of Australia’s university sector,” said Ms Belinda Robinson, Chief Executive of Universities Australia.

“In acknowledging the contribution that universities make to Australia’s economic and social prosperity – including through public investment in higher education and research – the report echoes Minister Pyne’s speech earlier this week that education policy is an economic driver of national productivity,” said Ms Robinson.

Comments on recommendations

Fee deregulation

“The report sensibly notes that the matter of fee deregulation requires further investigation and proposes the Minister report to the Prime Minister in 12 months on options to increase competition through full or partial deregulation of fees for bachelor degrees,” Ms Robinson said.

“Universities Australia has recently commissioned independent work which will assist in this task should the Government agree to the recommendation.”

Proposed change in student contribution

“This work will also assist in better informing the discussion around the relative public/private benefits of higher education, particularly in the absence of the case having been made in the report for shifting the contribution students make from 41 per cent to 55 per cent,” Ms Robinson said.

“If the Government decides to increase the student contribution, any savings should go to strengthening Australia’s tertiary sector, not serve as a substitute for public investment.”

Reducing the cost of the Higher Education Loans Program (HELP)

“In linking this to the recommendation to increase the proportion of the cost of higher education borne by students, the report also makes a number of suggestions for reducing the cost to the government of HELP.

“Universities Australia agrees that rising debt levels and doubtful debt contribute to undermine the financial sustainability of the higher education system. While the recommendations on this provide a logical basis for further consideration, the outcome should not undermine the fundamental premise of the HELP system in making higher education affordable,” Ms Robinson said.

Selling HELP debt

“The report’s conclusion that selling the HELP debt to the private sector makes no economic or policy sense is consistent with the findings of the Universities Australia paper submitted to the Commission.”

Research

In endorsing the importance of public investment in research, the report notes that “Australia’s research system is highly productive and is generally performing well relative to most EU-15 countries.”

“Universities Australia also welcomes the report’s acknowledgement of the very important role of basic research – a key focus of Australian universities – recognising that not all beneficial research will be undertaken by the private sector,” Ms Robinson said.

The report recommends the government take a more strategic, whole-of-government approach to the funding of research and development. Furthermore, Universities Australia considers that government support can play a more critical role in fostering collaboration between universities and industry than the report provides.

“While further clarification on some of the recommendations is required, for example, in relation to streamlining the current system of block grants, postgraduate scholarships and aligning funding for the direct and indirect costs of research, Universities Australia strongly supports the recommendation for the ongoing public investment in critical research infrastructure,” Ms Robinson said.

“Universities Australia has long-advocated for a sustainable, long-term funding model to support quality research infrastructure in recognition of its critical importance as part of an efficient and capable Australian research system.”
Cooperative Research Centres and the Collaborative Research Networks

Less understandable is the recommendation to do away with Cooperative Research Centres.

“The Cooperative Research Centre programme has withstood the test of time as a highly effective approach to research/industry collaboration,” Ms Robinson said.

“Additionally, the abolition of the Collaborative Research Networks programme will reduce the capacity of smaller and regional universities to undertake collaborative research that directly benefits local communities.”
General

“Investing in Australia’s universities is to invest in Australia’s future, and we need to be careful not to jeopardise this important cornerstone of our economic infrastructure through the hasty implementation of policy changes,” Ms Robinson said.

“The wide-ranging nature of the recommendations and the magnitude of their potential impact on the university sector warrants careful and thorough consideration.”

Universities Australia looks forward to continuing to work with the Education Minister, Christopher Pyne, and the Government more broadly in pursuing our shared ambition for Australia to have, in the Minister’s words, “no less than the world’s best higher education system.”

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