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Regional conundrum: slash universities, keep the campuses

28 March 2013 5,796 views 3 Comments

In a world of instant global connection, regional university fiefdoms need educating, writes ROSS FITZGERALD

Here’s something about which Craig Emerson, the new federal Minister for Tertiary Education, may care to ponder. On close examination, it seems that the Australian Regional Universities Network has things both right and wrong.

RUN is right to highlight the importance of our universities to regional Australia, but wrong in stressing supposed regional economic impact as their key indicator of success.

On the face of it, $2.1billion in gross domestic product, $1.2billion in household income, and more than 14,000 full- time jobs that they highlight as their contribution to regional economies looks good. But in fact most of the funding that regional universities bring is government funding. MNIR Story Ad

It is therefore important to ask: Would it be more efficient and effective to restructure our tertiary education sector with fewer regional universities but the same number of campuses? The dollars saved could be spent on much-needed hospitals and transport infrastructure.

Let us examine Central Queensland University, which also has campuses in Sydney, Melbourne, Adelaide and Brisbane. CQU vice chancellor Professor Scott Bowman this month announced that an operating loss in 2011 of $4million had grown to $24million for 2012. A week later, he was re-appointed for a second five-year term!

Professor Bowman is convinced the money for paying off these losses and putting his budget back in the black will come from domestic students recruited from across Australia via capital city campuses and online distance education. But is this the best way to spend Australian taxpayer dollars? Surely it is more efficient for the needs of students in our capital cities to be met by the capital city universities rather than by regional campuses. Also, Open Universities Australia services distance-education students with 19 capital city and regional TAFE and university partners working well and cost-effectively together.

Sadly, it seems that the band of six RUN members: CQU; Southern Cross University; University of Ballarat; University of New England; University of Southern Queensland; and the University of the Sunshine Coast, are more concerned with safeguarding their taxpayer-funded fiefdoms than they are with working co-operatively with each other and with other universities to deliver teaching and research more cost- effectively. Do they ever question the costs that could be saved by having fewer vice-chancellors? Not on your Nelly!

If one concentrates on the loss-making CQU, with campuses in Rockhampton, Gladstone, Mackay, Bundaberg, Emerald, Noosa, Gold Coast, Brisbane, Adelaide, Melbourne and Sydney, wouldn’t Central Queenslanders get more for less if these campuses were run by universities that actually turn a profit? For example, James Cook University (in Townsville) could expand its reach to Rockhampton, Gladstone, Emerald and Mackay; Noosa and Bundaberg would fit hand-in-glove into the University of the Sunshine Coast; Brisbane into the Queensland University of Technology; Adelaide into the University of South Australia; Melbourne into Victoria University; and Sydney into the University of Western Sydney.

Central Queensland would still have regional campuses and the capital cities their campuses. There would still be jobs in the regions with their flow-on support to regional industry. There still would be on-campus and online distance education with local support for central Queenslanders. There would still be university research in central Queensland. So what would be missing? The vice-chancellor would be
dethroned and the economies of scale and the access to a wider academic staff base would enable a bigger educational bang for the buck from taxpayer funds.

Surely it is time for RUN to be proactive and champion real change at regional universities? Real change that uses the opportunities of online interactive lecture rooms, online hands-on science laboratories that bring the lab to the student; and a critical mass of academic staff that can only be a pipe-dream for single-operator, government-funded, regional university fiefdoms.

In his address to the National Press Club last month, Professor Glyn Davis, Melbourne University VC and outgoing chairman of Universities Australia, stressed that our universities were facing difficult financial times. Certainly the peak body understands that, whatever the result of the federal election, Australian universities would be deluding themselves if they believed they were likely to receive billions more in taxpayer funding.

At the beginning of last year, Professor Davis noted effective change was coming from the market. As he put it, we walked away from decades of close government control of universities and created instead a market for undergraduate student places.

Markets change everything. The removal of domestic student quotas and lighter government regulation means that universities are free to take as many students as they want and offer whatever subjects they like. As the forward-thinking Professor Davis said, “If we get this right, the possibilities seem unlimited.”

RUN seems not to be listening. Markets have no place for taxpayer-funded fiefdoms. Linked to radical changes in communication, markets are empowering capital cities and regions and are delivering future outcomes mightily different from our relatively recent past.

For state and federal governments their role is shifting from niggling, bureaucratic oversight to working with the tertiary education sector to restructure it for this century and beyond.

Each of the six RUN universities, along with all the other 39 universities in the nation, need to get it right. A smarter Australia requires reform in higher education. Such reform requires increasing efficiency and cost cutting to enable the innovation needed by Australians who are now connected together and with the world using technology that was barely dreamed when the ALP’s John Dawkins instituted the tertiary education reforms of the late 1980s, which are long past their use-by date.

The neglect of higher education reform cannot be allowed to continue. Real change in tertiary education, and in particular our regional universities, is long overdue.

Professor Ross Fitzgerald is the author of 35 books, most recently ‘My Name is Ross: An Alcoholic’s Journey’ and the university satire ‘Fool’s Paradise’.

‘The Canberra Times’, March 28, 2013


  • David Battersby said:

    Fitzgerald wrong

    Ross Fitzgerald’s exaggerated and satirical opinion piece (”Regional conundrum: slash universities, keep the campuses”, March 28, p15) might have been better run on April 1. According to Fitzgerald the way to effect real savings and to create sustained structural reform is to have fewer regional universities and fewer vice-chancellors.

    For Fitzgerald every regional university in Australia is equivalent to a taxpayer-funded fiefdom. Economies of scale would be achieved by dethroning the vice-chancellors at regional universities. While Fitzgerald advocates the importance of the market in driving reform, he then suggests a rationale for placing controls over regional universities. Had Fitzgerald researched his piece a little better he would have quickly realised the vision for a national university for regional Australia, emanating from the Bradley Review, was unachievable and unrealistic. Fitzgerald highlights the activities of the Regional Universities Network (RUN) indicating that it has got some things right in its advocacy of government. But he suggests RUN needs to be more proactive and champion what he calls ”real change” at regional universities. This is occurring. The RUN Accord, signed off last year, facilitates collaboration across regional universities in learning and teaching, research, international activities and support functions. One aim is to boost the range of courses available to regional students by pooling teaching resources.

    Course units available at one university are offered via distance education and online delivery to others, broadening the scope of offerings available in a cost effective manner. Fitzgerald is clearly unaware of this, even though this information is available on the Regional Universities Network website.

    Collaboration on research and the pooling of resources and expertise among the regional universities and with their metropolitan partner universities is now commonplace and widely lauded as a great success. If Fitzgerald had bothered he would have also seen that at each of the regional universities there were significant examples of non-Commonwealth funded enterprises creating jobs and producing wealth for the regions.

    Professor David Battersby, chairman of the Regional Universities Network and vice-chancellor of the University of Ballarat.

    The Canberra Times, 4 April 2013

  • David Mazoudier said:

    Too many chiefs

    Professor David Battersby’s letter to the editor (April 4, p12) shows just how right Ross Fitzgerald (”Regional conundrum: slash universities, keep the campuses”, March 28, p15) is to highlight the conundrum of loss-making regional universities: too many chiefs and not enough Indians.

    A pertinent example that Professor Battersby does not mention is this week’s decision by Central Queensland University to wind up C Management Services at the expense of at least 100 teaching and support jobs.

    This loss-making, non-Commonwealth funded enterprise was able to sign long-term leases on its rented metropolitan campuses only because payment is guaranteed by government.

    David Mazoudier, Nambucca Heads, NSW

    The Canberra Times, 6 April 2013

  • Lisa Benoit said:

    Fitzgerald goes to CQUniversity after published criticisms

    Professor Ross Fitzgerald and CQUniversity Vice Chancellor Scott Bowman discuss how the university could be improved. Allan Reinikka

    PROFESSOR Ross Fitzgerald has made a trip to Rockhampton after penning a critical article about regional universities, including CQUniversity.

    The well-known academic went on the offensive in an article for the Canberra Times, stating it’d be more efficient to restructure the tertiary education sector with fewer regional universities.

    He also suggested having fewer vice chancellors as a way to save money.

    CQUniversity Vice Chancellor Scott Bowman took this as an opportunity to invite Prof Fitzgerald to the campus. Prof Fitzgerald hadn’t set foot at the campus before yesterday. “I was impressed with the invitation … I’m quite open-minded.

    “I didn’t know about the TAFE merger. I thought that was forward thinking for the uni.”

    Meanwhile Prof Bowman didn’t shy away from Prof Fitzgerald’s criticisms in the article.

    “Everyone has an opinion,” he said.

    “It’s easy to see figures on paper and say they don’t look good, but you need to sit down and explain where money has gone and that we just underwent a refurbishment.

    “Prof Fitzgerald has seen everything, all the books are open to him.”

    The Bulletin (Rockhampton) 24 Apr 2013 p 4 & The Gladstone Observer 24 April 2013

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