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Doing it tough at uni of hard knocks

8 October 2013 One Comment


A KEY question facing federal Education Minister Christopher Pyne as he begins his much-needed tertiary education review is how to ensure the financial viability of higher education in Australia.

Pyne needs to understand that it makes no sense for regional universities to try to balance their budgets by running mini-campuses in capital city CBD’s.

The sad reality is that, in order for mini-campuses to compete with capital city based universities, there is a costly race to the bottom.

Operating a regional university is very different from operating a university in a major city. Dual-sector universities are required to follow a largely standardised curriculum in order to satisfy the standards set by professional accreditation bodies. Hence an allied health professional or engineer studying in regional Australia needs to cover the same material as that covered by a student studying at a capital city university.
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So why cannot a regional dual-sector university get its course materials from a university based in a major city?

A core problem is that, under the current structure, small regional universities have become entrenched fiefdoms where local vice-chancellors seem unable to separate their job security from the need to provide cost-effective higher and further education in regional Australia.

To sustain a structure with too many Chiefs and not enough Indians, vice-chancellors seek growth, and with their small regional populations not being large enough to feed their need for dollars they set off to raid major cities.

Central Queensland University, for example, has mini campuses in Sydney, Brisbane, Melbourne, and Adelaide.

But, because regional universities are so thinly resourced, it is delusional to say that CQUniversity in Sydney is truly equivalent to say Sydney University or the University of New South Wales.

As a result, the brand is damaged and regional universities get caught in a downward spiral of huge operating losses followed by major staff cuts.

Pyne urgently needs to recognise this dilemma. Regional universities with multi mini-campuses based in our major cities represent a risk to higher and further education standards at home and a risk to brand Australia’s significant education exports.

National Australia Bank’s Michael Chaney has reported that, by the end of the decade, Australia’s export education industry could grow by 30 per cent to 520,000 international students, spending $19 billion to study here.

But Chaney warned that inter-university competition will intensify. The threat that mini-campuses operating as pretend universities represent to the attempt to move up the value chain is too real to ignore.

Pyne’s higher education review needs to cut through the marketing nonsense coming from some ego-driven regional university chiefs.

Let’s make sure we deliver high standards to both domestic and international students rather than propping up tax-payer funded fiefdoms to those deluded Vice Chancellors who dream of ruling Australia-wide.

It is not about regional VCs and it’s not about taxpayer funded academic silver-tails. It is about the higher education needs of all Australians.

Ross Fitzgerald is Emeritus Professor of History and Politics at Griffith University.

The Daily Telegraph, October 8 2013, p 25

One Comment »

  • David Mazoudier said:

    Focus tertiary education on regional areas

    Ross Fitzgerald ( October 8) hits the nail on the head: the way forwards is to focus regional tertiary education supply on regional Australia and not capital city CBDs.

    The model suggested by Ross Fitzgerald is being rolled out in Victoria. The merger of Monash’s Gippsland campus with the dual sector University of Ballarat, to create the new Federation University, explicitly focusses on the needs of regional communities. It is well placed to provide educational options that are more closely aligned to the needs of local employers in Ballarat, Gippsland, Horsham, Stawell and Ararat.

    Fed Uni, with its rather confronting FU acronym, is the approach that Education Minister Pyne and our NSW Minister of Education Adrian Piccoli should adopt.

    Congratulations to Ross Fitzgerald, the Victorian Minister for Higher Education and Skills, Peter Hall, and Ballarat and Monash universities for introducing some common sense into Australia’s tertiary education.

    David Mazoudier, Nambucca Heads
    The Daily Telegraph, October 9 2013, Letters, p 26

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