Struggling universities are a study in survival
The Way We Approach Higher Education Needs To Change, writes ROSS FITZGERALD
ALTHOUGH I very much enjoy writing political satires such as my co-authored ‘Fools’ Paradise: Life In An Altered State’, set in the fictitious University of Mangoland, sadly neither my recent suggestions to cut the number of universities and vice-chancellors in Australia – particularly in the regions – nor the 2008 Bradley Review recommendation that our university sector requires serious structural change, were satires.
As the now publicly declared cuts of $2.4 billion to higher education funding and John Daley’s recent report for the Grattan Institute on the budget pressures on Australian governments make clear, change is long overdue.
In a market-driven economy our universities need to deliver economies of scale in administration and the critical mass of academic staff needed to extend quality standards in teaching and research.
I recently had the opportunity to meet face-to-face with Professor Scott Bowman (vice-chancellor of Central Queensland University) and some of his colleagues, students and regional stakeholders in Rockhampton. I could not fail to be impressed by their dignity and determination in fighting to defend the independence of their regionally important university. Although CQ University is achieving a 13 per cent increase in domestic students, the 32 per cent fall in international students from 2010 to 2012 means it is losing two students for every one gained.
In addition, the increasing staffing costs needed to attract high-quality academics and the recently announced cuts in government funding add to the burden of reduced revenues and operating deficits.
I was reminded of the valiant struggle waged by my now long-out-of-business local grocery shop and delicatessen against the supermarket chains.
Bowman, like the Regional Universities Network chairman, Professor David Battersby from Ballarat University, rejects the need to respond to market drivers by slashing the number of universities in order to keep in operation multiple campuses throughout regional and remote Australia. Like their fiercely independent-minded grocery shop and deli counterparts of yesteryear, they are waging a protracted battle to survive.
As much as my heart goes out to the regional vice-chancellors, my head very much places me on the side of supporting structural change in higher education.
In 2013 there are too many universities in Australia and far too many vice-chancellors. Structural change is necessary so our public sector universities can deliver, at a reasonable price, the increasing range of degree opportunities sought and needed by our students, especially in regional Australia. The opportunity to acquire professional skills by regional Australians of all ages and backgrounds is essential for healthy regions in our nation.
This need must outweigh the grief of parting with some of the much-loved regional universities.
This is where sound government comes in. While the Bradley Review may have implied the introduction of a national university for regional and remote Australia, a more sensible approach would be structural change within each state. This will best meet the needs of regional students and regional economies.
The Grattan Institute report highlighted the need for structural change in the budgets of both state and federal governments. Both levels of government play a role in the governance of our universities and both should be leaders in restructuring the university sector. In so doing, they will need to be attentive to the two key functions that the sector is funded to deliver: providing teaching and research available to all Australians and as an exporter of high-quality educational services for international students. Good government will need to place securing a sustainable framework for these functions ahead of the parish-pump.
While I disagree with regional vice-chancellors about the need for structural change in higher education, which I maintain ought to involve reducing the number of Australian universities, we are as one in regarding the Gillard government’s plan to fund the Gonski reforms by cutting university funding by 2 per cent as a foolhardy and shortsighted robbing of Peter to pay Paul. Financially and symbolically it is the height of stupidity to siphon off money from universities to fund improvements in schools.
Ross Fitzgerald is Emeritus Professor of History and Politics at Griffith University. He is the author of 35 books, most recently ‘Fools’ Paradise’ and his memoir ‘My Name is Ross: An Alcoholic’s Journey’.
The Daily Telegraph April 29, 2013 p 23