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Pollies’ follies

LH Martin Institute   |   27 May 2014

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Leo Goedegebuure, head of the LH Martin Institute at the University of Melbourne, on how not to go about creating a vibrant, world-class higher education system. He suggests institutional leaders should forcefully react for the greater good of the country rather than roll over and play dead under the guise of institutional positioning in the market.

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We’ve heard from the government on multiple occasions that Australia needs a vibrant, world-class higher education Leosystem.

The latest U21 ranking places us at No 9 in the world. That feels about right; we’re pretty good but not at the top.

In the light of2014-15 Budget it appears if Australia is to remain a world-class system, it will be one essentially based on tuition fees. How can we seriously believe that the quality and standard of our system will be maintained, let alone be enhanced, when the funding for teaching is to be cut by 20 per cent across the board and research is hit from multiple angles?

The responses so far from sector insiders has been bizarre. Are they masochists? Rather than rallying in Canberra, it is mind-boggling to see our various peak and factional bodies respond with bland statements about “constructively working with government” and “working out the details of a challenging future” while the foundation is being ripped out of a sector which is performing pretty well against all the odds.

Australia has a couple of serious problems when it comes to tertiary education, but these are not going to be solved by throwing the system open to full blown market competition. On the contrary, we need our universities, TAFEs and colleges to collaborate.

As all the rankings show, we are at the back of the pack when it comes to university-industry -engagement. So why then was the CRC program decimated? This is a serious issue for a country without much of an industrial base in the first place.

Putting up a medical research fund may seem like a good idea but it does not make for good policy to put all your research eggs in one medical basket. Indeed much of our current and future medical research will depend, as always, on research in all the other disciplines which are now at the mercy of a shrinking Australian Research Council budget. With the short-lived and pillaged Education Endowment Fund now over and done with, one has to ask what would become of a medical research fund.

But are we giving the country the best it can expect for the public dollars that are being expended on universities? Probably not. Bowen’s Law is a powerful one: universities will raise every dollar they can and then spend every one of them. Essentially, base funding reviews are meaningless and there are no absolute base costs to teaching or research. On top of that, many institutions have a very bad understanding of their costs, which makes arguing their case to the government even more precarious.

Australia’s research endeavours are a complex tapestry — but it’s one that works. It may not be at the highest of high levels as the Chief Scientist rightly points out, but it is not shonky either. However, taking out bits and pieces seemingly willy-nilly, as is proposed in the current budget, is counterproductive, as all the components of our research sector (and infrastructure) are crucially interdependent. This is not good for a country that really needs to move from a resources and manufacturing base to a knowledge and services-based economy. Tertiary education and research play a crucial role in this and cannot, and should not, be left to the vagaries of markets. We are in urgent need of a cogent and well-supported long-term research and innovation strategy for the good of the country.

Politicians should learn from past failures — we have seen a few of those in the training sector — and institutional leaders should forcefully react for the greater good of the country rather than roll over and play dead under the guise of institutional positioning in the market. There is far too much at stake.

 This article was first published in The Australian.

 

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