University Australia’s election agenda
17 March 2016
In this extract from his speech to the recent Universities Australia Conference (which was mainly about research, innovation and collaboration), Universities Australia’s chair Barney Glover sets out in broad terms the university sector’s policy agenda for this election year. He prefaced his comments with the observation that the sector has been subject almost 2 years of policy insecurity and uncertainty which has taken a toll on the ability of universities to plan and allocate resources (it’s actually more like 4 years, taking into account the churn that was going on in the latter days of the Gillard government). In October last year, Universities Australia released its policy statement – Keep it clever 2016. This sets out in detail the context of its policy agenda (“universities are really important to the nation’s present and future security and well being”); what’s needed to drive research and innovation; public funding support for students; and government support for international education.
It’s vitally important that we establish a tone that speaks to the possibilities of reform rather than the limits of party-political paradigms.
This is especially relevant in this election year but more so in light of the considerable challenges Australia’s universities face in the decades to come.
In a setting where reform is approached with such reductionist cynicism; just what is it we are missing?
I would argue we are missing the chance to do the very thing, as a nation, I demonstrated we can be so good at in my earlier remarks on research collaboration.
That is, we are missing the opportunity to grow, develop and excel through a cognisant, progressive and collaborative approach to reform.
It would be remiss of me to reflect so pointedly on the dynamics of Australian political reform without addressing higher education reform. In many respects this issue has been subject to the many pressures I’ve discussed.
Without traversing the policy and political landscape since the announcement of the government’s higher education reform package in 2014, it is important to note, that despite the Senate’s opposition, the reforms in their original form continue to be government policy as reflected in financial and budget papers.
With Senate reform looming, these are far from “dead in the water” – as some have suggested.
The way forward for higher education
What we don’t yet know, is whether these will continue to be the government’s position in the lead up to the election. And here it is worth reiterating that Universities Australia had suggested a number of amendments to these proposals.
The sector will never accept that maintaining the level of quality expected by our students, employers and the community can be achieved through reducing the level public investment in universities.
Nor is it consistent with the government’s stated aim of having innovation at the heart of a strong economy.
Almost two years of policy insecurity and uncertainty is taking its toll on the ability of universities to plan and allocate resources in their student’s best interests.
It is difficult to imagine any other industry tolerating such policy instability.
Yet when it comes to higher education – the majority contributor to Australia’s third largest export industry, the cornerstone of Australia’s innovation future, and a $140 billion contributor to our economy in 2014 – the rules are different.
It remains the case that policy and funding certainty and stability continues to be the sector’s number one advocacy priority.
The opposition has released a comprehensive higher education policy but questions remain – not least around base funding and the means for sustaining the system over the longer term.
In recognising the issue, education minister Simon Birmingham has broadly consulted with stakeholders as he considers options for change.
We encourage the government, and again I don’t think it unreasonable, to make its position clear – sooner, rather than later.
The time has come for a national agreement on the future of higher education in this country.
We have strong views, we have our own ideas, we have invested a great deal in the research and analysis that informs those ideas and we have strived to posit a way forward but we do not pretend to have all the answers.
It is no secret that while there is a great deal on which vice-chancellors are in substantial and unwavering agreement, there are matters of continuing debate among us.
However, the most important debate on higher education in this election year is not the one within the university sector but the public debate: the engagement our political leaders have with the Australian people.
Universities Australia, like all of us, wants that debate to be open and informed.
We believe a public debate that reflects the complexity of these issues is critical and it should be one in which the respective parties clearly articulate the following:
- the principles that guide and the objectives to be achieved by their higher education policies;
- the key reforms that will deliver those objectives;
- the proposed means for delivering a sustainable and stable higher education system; and
- the implications of these policies for students, universities, industry and indeed government itself over the longer term.
So with an election in the offing, I take this opportunity on behalf of Universities Australia to urge both parties to engage in a sophisticated public debate and purposeful discussion on the higher education, research and indeed, innovation challenges we face today and in decades to come.
The discovery of gravitational waves and the enormous possibilities of the SKA not only inspire us, but remind us of just what can be achieved when universities, researchers, industry and governments share their knowledge, combine their experience, and apply their expertise to an agreed end.
It reminds us that innovation not only requires deep and sustained collaboration between and beyond universities but patient and serious investment. It reminds us that we should dare to imagine what might lie beyond what we know today.
If we are as a nation serious about our intellectual development, about research and innovation, about a new economy fuelled by ideas then we need to think about education as an essential government responsibility requiring high levels of sustained investment over the long term.
We need to think about education as we think about the economy: the means for personal security and national prosperity.
We need to think about education in the way we think about the arts: as food for the soul and as the expression of who we are as individuals and as a society.
That is why this debate matters.
The time really has come for a national agreement on the future of higher education.