Regional conundrum: slash universities, keep the campuses
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.
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