Open university offer government greater value
Australia’s Group of Eight (Go8) universities are all in capital cities. Victoria and NSW each have two Go8 universities, while the other states and territories, except for Tasmania and the Northern Territory, each have only one. Tasmania and the NT have none.
The richest pickings for universities are in the large capital cities where most Australians live. This will be even more the case following fee deregulation. Several regional and smaller universities have sought to cash in on the big city market with mini-campuses. Central Queensland University, for example, has mini-campuses in Melbourne, Sydney, Adelaide and Brisbane.
It is a moot point whether publicly subsidised mini-campuses are competing unfairly with the private sector or if they assist public sector efficiency. What is clear is that market failures are most likely to include some regional universities – as has been already flagged by the Regional Universities Network’s special pleading for additional taxpayers’dollars.
As federal Education Minister, Christopher Pyne needs to plan ahead for regional and other university market failures so that future taxpayers’ dollars are not wasted on bailing out failed universities or mopping up the messes they leave in their wake. It seems indisputable that when he became Minister for Education, Pyne was burdened with a structure for further and higher education that came from a previous age of entitlement that saddled both regional and capital city Australians with a burden of government debt that they, their children and their grandchildren simply cannot afford.
It is also clear that, because of the tyranny of distance, small population centres, like Mt Isa, Cloncurry, Port Augusta, Alice Springs and Marree, currently receive a raw deal in the further and higher education market.
It is therefore significant that Open Universities Australia brings together 13 higher education providers offering a wide range of diploma and degree programs supported by a student coaching and counselling service, academic tutors and study groups. Because their courses and support services are online they have the reach to cover students in rural and remote Australia. Because their courses are run from 13 established universities, including two Go8 universities , Monash and the University of Western Australia , along with a healthy mix of others , including RMIT, Macquarie, Griffith and Curtin universities – they offer quality across a very wide range of courses.
Open Universities Australia is clearly not perfect: they could and should be doing more to extend their cover of TAFE courses and to work more closely with employers.
However, what I am suggesting is to let the market sort the wheat from the chaff and invest in Open Universities Australia the savings from not propping up those universities that fail to make the cut.
There will need to be some strict conditions attached. These conditions ought to include an enforced undertaking that these taxpayers’ dollars do not feed capital city student operations but rather that they go into increasing higher and further online education support for the about 15 per cent of Australians who live and work in very remote, remote and outer regional Australia. This undertaking can be monitored by linking targets of increased student numbers from small population centres to the investment of our taxpayer dollars.
The alternative is to respond to the special pleading from the Regional Universities Network and other small universities seeking extra taxpayer dollars because they fail in a tough global market that will get even tougher in the years ahead.
Saying a firm no may force these special pleaders to abandon the luxury of their bloated cost structures with six-figure salaries to which they assume their vice-chancellors are entitled and a carte blanche for them to spend taxpayers’ dollars on non-core higher education spending. A recent example is Central Queensland University’s spending to get the naming rights of the now CQUniversity Cairns Taipans, a highly successful professional basketball team.
Similarly, why is Central Queensland University now planning to spend millions of taxpayer dollars supporting a mini-campus in Townsville? Does the economy of Northern Queensland benefit from having a Rockhampton-based university cheek by jowl with James Cook University – which currently works cost-effectively with Open Universities Australia and which already has 11,500 students studying in Townsville, including over 1,500 international students?
We also need to understand that by funding universities that have reached their use-by dates and can no longer compete in a deregulated market, we will see the millions of dollars our universities earn as our second-largest export industry go to overseas competitors and at the same time deny those Australians, who do their work well away from the major cities, the investment that they need.
We are moving towards a future in which the key regional industries of tourism, minerals processing and agriculture will thrive best when supported by a strong and regularly updated foundation of human skills and expertise provided in large part by those living and working in very remote, remote and outer regional Australia.
Targeted investment in Open Universities Australia – a partnership of successful universities that recognise that smart competition in a free market requires strategic partnerships with others – will not reward special pleading. It will reward the heavy lifters in very remote, remote and outer regional Australia and it will leave Australian universities well placed to thrive in the healthy winds of the free market.
Professor Ross Fitzgerald’s memoir, ‘My Name is Ross: An Alcoholic’s Journey’, is available as an e-book and a talking book from Vision Australia.
‘The Canberra Times’, December 1, 2014, p 5. Also in ‘The Age’ December 1, 2014,