The Australian, 20 Mar 2015
By Andrew Trounson
THE country’s elite universities want the government to convene an independent review panel to assess the alternative proposals emerging for higher education reform.
The alternative proposals have emerged as part of bid by Education Minster Christopher Pyne to secure Senate support for a third attempt at passing his legislation in July.
Go8 chief executive Vicki Thomson said an independent committee should operate on a tight time-frame.
She said politicians should be excluded because fee deregulation had become too polarised, but that it should include student representatives such as the National Union of Students.
It comes as the government is canvassing different proposals with the Senate crossbenchers; the government has been discussing a proposal to moderate fees under deregulation by levying a progressive tax on high fees.
It has also canvassed options with independent senator David Leyonhjelm for addressing concerns about a potential blowout in bad debt if fees are deregulated, such as making a “modest” amount of a university’s funding dependent to how well its graduates repay their HECS loans.
“Time is of the essence. We need to have a tightly focused discussion of what the alternatives are and ascertain whether they are palatable to the government, the opposition and the crossbenchers and are of benefit to the sector and students,” Ms Thomson told The Australian.
A spokesman for Mr Pyne said the government was continuing to talk to crossbenchers and “we’ll have more to say in due course”.
New research yesterday showed universities are increasingly being forced to dip into their general budgets, including teaching money, to sustain and grow research spending. If trends continued, the quality of teaching risked being undermined, said researcher Frank Larkins, a former deputy vice-chancellor at the University of Melbourne.
In an LH Martin Institute paper, Professor Larkins said research spending had grown to account for 41 per cent of the sector’s operating spend in 2012, up from just 31 per cent in 2002.
Of that research spending 47 per cent, or $4.5 billion, is being sourced from areas such as international and domestic student fees, teaching subsidies and investment income. This is up from 37 per cent in 2002.
It highlights the bind that universities are in as government funding fails to keep pace with the growing investment that underpins their reputations and sustains the country’s research effort.
It is one of the reasons why the sector has campaigned for fee deregulation, but it has raised concerns that deregulated fees risked being inflated by the need to crosssubsidise research. “They are caught between a rock and a hard place,” Professor Larkins said.