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Vice-chancellors discuss higher education ahead of planned federal government reforms.

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Monday, 3 March 2003


PETER THOMPSON: Australia’s vice-chancellors gather in Melbourne tomorrow to discuss the federal government’s planned reforms of higher education. Last year’s higher education of the Crossroads Inquiry received more than 700 submissions on future directions for our $6 billion tertiary system. Two weeks ago, the federal minister, Brendan Nelson, took his final report to cabinet and at the same time began the hard-sell of the government’s blueprint for reform. There will be more places for full fee-paying students and more pressure on our 38 universities to gear themselves to more vocational courses.


Three of Australia’s university chiefs are with us this morning: Professor James McWha who is Vice-Chancellor at Adelaide University, Professor Glyn Davis who is Vice-Chancellor at Griffith University in Queensland, and also Professor Rory Hume who is Vice-Chancellor at the University of New South Wales. Welcome to all three of you.


Rory Hume, if I can begin with you. What is going to be different after these reforms?


RORY HUME: Peter, I hope that we will achieve what both the AVCC and Brendan Nelson want to as the main outcome and, that is, that Australia will have a more diverse and stronger higher education sector. That will be the major thing for the country: that the universities will be less like each other and that they will all be stronger; that each university will find a different path that makes it more valuable to the country; that we are not just exactly the same as each other, which we have been tending to be over the last 15 years. We have had one set of accountability measures, one set of incentives, and we have all tended to go down the same path.


The AVCC, earlier in this process, very wisely recommended—and I think Brendan Nelson’s biggest achievement was to understand that that is not good for the country—that we need to have a broad range of universities that are quite different from each other. We are a mature enough and bright enough and rich enough country to do that. And to have 39 or 40 sort of mediocre universities that are all the same is just not good enough for this country.


PETER THOMPSON: Glyn Davis in Queensland, do you embrace that?


GLYN DAVIS: Absolutely! I think it is important to say, though, that we don’t actually know, as a university sector, what Brendan Nelson has in mind for us. We have all been keeping in touch with government policy by reading the leaks in the Sydney Morning Herald , so a lot of this, by need, has to be speculation about what we think he is going to do. Although he has told us that the package has gone to cabinet it hasn’t been released and, other than leaks, it is a little hard to get the detail.


PETER THOMPSON: In Queensland, at Griffith, what difference would diversity make? If you are pushing in the direction of diversity, how would things be different?


GLYN DAVIS: Well, the sorts of mechanisms that Brendan Nelson seems to have in mind are about funding regional universities to do different things, and I think there would be a lot of support across the sector for that sort of initiative. In Queensland, we have quite a diverse range and it might be that changes would make a difference at the margin. But we have, at least in south-east Queensland, three very large, strong and quite distinctively different universities already.


PETER THOMPSON: Are you saying it would be business as usual at Griffith?


GLYN DAVIS: I don’t know that it would be business as usual because I don’t know what the minister intends to do, but I am saying that diversity has a good base already and if the minister’s initiative is to build on that—and I share Rory’s aspiration—then the differences would be to push us down the directions where we are already going, I suspect.


PETER THOMPSON: James McWha in Adelaide, what is your view; will it be business as usual?


JAMES McWHA: No, I don’t think it will be business as usual but I think many of the universities will be able to focus on the things that they are already indicating they would like to do better. You do find that there are particular missions that have been identified by particular groups of universities. What we need is to have the system deregulated and freed up so that we can pursue those missions with greater vigour.


PETER THOMPSON: Rory Hume, is this deregulation; is this what this agenda is really about?


RORY HUME: Oh, no. No, I don’t think so. It is actually a way to encourage us down a particular path using the right sort of incentives and rewards. We have been through a period of deregulation, funnily enough, where we were told to compete with each other and there were essentially no rules. I am delighted that Queensland is doing well. I think they have a particularly far-sighted state government, and that is wonderful for them.


The country as a whole has been tending to put on the same courses across the board and not really work hard to define their unique strengths and their unique value to the country. We need to do that. If you compare our sector as a whole, with the US, the have a much broader range of types of universities than we do, and we are much more restricted in what we are.


PETER THOMPSON: Back to you in Adelaide, James McWha: what deregulation do you want?


JAMES McWHA: I think we need a situation where there is more choice in the hands of the students and where the amount of direction that we get from central government is significantly reduced. I am not a great believer in the fact that governments can, in detail, direct where any activity should be moving and, in particular in this case, where university research should be moving.


PETER THOMPSON: Indeed, is there any country in the world which has as much government control over the tertiary sector as Australia?


JAMES McWHA: I can’t speak for all countries in the world but we are probably about the middle of the range. There are some which have their university sector very, very tightly regulated and there are some which have a very free sector.




RORY HUME: I have spent 17 years in California where you’d think it was the home of the free and the land of the brave and laissez-faire—it’s not. The public education there is highly regulated; that is one of the reasons why it is so successful.


PETER THOMPSON: But in fact it has a much stronger private sector than we do too. The two are much more in parallel.


RORY HUME: Let’s look at the top 100 universities in world. California has about eight of them: three are private, five are public. The public universities are really good because they are the ones that are allowed to and are supported to do research. It is really quite a strong regulation. I don’t think we should go down that path. Australia could not handle that and I don’t think it is our path to success to regulate in the way that California has.




GLYN DAVIS: I agree that the California system is the exemplar of great regulation. It shows that there are multiple ways to get good university systems, and deregulation is only one of them and doesn’t necessarily deliver. The thing to keep in mind, though, is the government is not talking deregulation. It is talking new changes to student financing which would shift, again, the burden of new places on to students, but it is also apparently—and again we are relying on leaks—it is talking about re-regulation to force universities to teach more teachers and nurses. So we need to see the character of the package but it sounds like a mixture of deregulation on financial and perhaps corporate governance matters but a re-regulation about course and directions—and as James has said—research.


PETER THOMPSON: What about the notion of the university as food for the soul; is that sort of out of date, old-fashioned and gone?


GLYN DAVIS: No, I think everybody who works in university or goes to one would see that as central and at the core of the university mission. But as vice-chancellors I guess we end up spending a lot of our time worrying about finance and capital and all the prosaic things necessary to make a large organisation run. But nobody I think, inside a university, forgets what it is there to do, which is to foster thought and free thought and to make us critical and interested in the world and ready to engage with it.




JAMES McWHA: Yes, absolutely. Universities are about education. There is a lot of skills training goes on but even that skills training should be based on a good sound and broad education. There are subjects alive today in universities, and healthy, which 10 years ago we could easily have discarded as being irrelevant, and today we know they aren’t. They are important in a world where suddenly ethics and all the issues that surround it have become vital to everything we do.


I think it is important that our students go out into the world with a diverse range of understanding of how the world functions. And if you look at where they find jobs, I think you will find that a lot of employers are looking for those sorts of employees.


PETER THOMPSON: While there is much warm talk about the idea of universities still being food for the soul, the practical realities are different, aren’t they?


JAMES McWHA: No, I don’t think so. I think what we find is that students themselves now are taking double degrees, they are doing additional options within their degrees, and these are an opportunity for them to pursue some of these areas, to pursue the philosophical issues, to pursue a whole range of issues. Indeed, I would be very sad if we were moving in a direction where only skills were valued. There are whole rafts of disciplines within the humanities that are vital to the health of any society.


PETER THOMPSON: But on the other hand it appears—I am sort of forced to say that too because we have not seen publicly what Brendan Nelson is saying—that this report very much focuses on skills and occupations.


JAMES McWHA: As you say, we haven’t actually heard what he is saying yet but I suspect that won’t necessarily be the case. I think he will be wanting to see the need for skills in society is met. But I don’t think there will be any way in which they are going to be discriminating against those subjects which, as you describe it, are food for the soul.


PETER THOMPSON: Rory Hume, is there a money crisis in our universities?


RORY HUME: I don’t think so. We all would love to have more money and we’d love for our costs to be borne by the taxpayers rather than the student—that would be a terrific outcome, but the political process works out how much public investment there is and how much private there is.


Universities can always spend more money and spend it well. Our challenge, I think, is to devise the systems that help us to diversify with the resource base that it available to us in a way that is fair to the individual and beneficial to society.


PETER THOMPSON: There has been a decline in public commitment to universities.


RORY HUME: I think there has around the world. In all societies like ours, whether it is Britain or North America or Australia, I think the level of public investment, over the last 20 years, has come back to some degree and, generally speaking, societies are expecting—and I think unfortunately—the individual to bear a greater part of the costs of their education. There is no doubt that education has some individual benefits but it also has enormous benefits to society. It is a reasonable thing to be debating and I understand that governments have to work out how you balance those priorities with others.


PETER THOMPSON: In Queensland, what is your view there, Glyn?


GLYN DAVIS: Well, there is no doubt there has been a decline. Government spends about 1.5 per cent of GDP on higher education—The Australian Vice-Chancellors’ Committee believes that figure should be around 2 per cent. I think some of the major changes that people in the system have experienced is the extraordinary increase in student numbers over the last decade—about a 30 per cent increase—in the number of students going to universities, and a huge increase in the number of international students, which has turned higher education into a very valuable export industry for Australia, so you’ve seen massive changes. That sort of increase in productivity—that is 30 per cent more students—has been achieved with a fall in the number of full-time teaching and researching staff. So you’ve seen massive growth allied to huge productivity gains, over the last 10 years, in the university sector.


So there is no doubt that there are pressures and tensions that arise from those sorts of  fundamental shifts, which you see now in Australia is, by world standards—and I am relying here on the Productivity Commission report of earlier this year—a very ef ficient system, one that produces a quality product for less than many countries in our region spent, one that is producing a graduation rate now that is in about the middle of the OECD range. But one of the issues the Productivity Commission pointed to is the huge disparity in resources available to different universities—so it is not like all universities start from the same base. In some cases, they reported a 3:1 disparity—so some universities have three times as much money to spend on their students as others. And one of the questions, I guess, we will all be looking for in the Brendan Nelson report is: what is it going to do to ensure that areas of Australia that have low provision of higher education and low access to higher education that that is corrected, that they enjoy the same rates as some of the better supported areas.


PETER THOMPSON: Let’s go back to Adelaide—James McWha, there are three universities in Adelaide: Adelaide University, Flinders, and the University of South Australia. Can they all survive?


JAMES McWHA: Well, yes. The number, based on population basis, is about the average for Australia. I think what we need to ensure is that our universities are talking to each other and communicating and that we can work together to ensure that we deliver the best education to students. This is where this idea of differentiating the role of universities comes in. We have cooperative arrangements right across Australia and, indeed, internationally, and of course our working relationships with out local universities is very, very strong so that we can ensure that where there are courses that are difficult to teach because of small numbers, those sorts of areas we cooperate and we teach those jointly.


So, yes, I think they can survive but I do think that the success or otherwise of these reforms that are being proposed will rest very much on how much the government is willing to commit to them in terms of resources. We don’t have the best funded university sector in the world, by any means; we are a long, long way short of that....


PETER THOMPSON: And for years it has been getting less?


JAMES McWHA: Yes, it certainly has, and the government needs to look at that very, very carefully. If you want to have a society that leads the world in terms of innovation, then you must be willing to commit resources to your universities.


RORY HUME: Peter, unfortunately, you must also be prepared to deal with disparities in strengths. In order to be competitive in a particular field, you need a few universities in this country that can retain the best scholars, attract the best scholars, against very intense international competition. So part of the solution, in addition to access and equity, has to be the development of nodes of real strength distributed around the country and, I think, in a range of different universities so that we can keep people here and bring the best brains in the world to Australia.


PETER THOMPSON: Is the brain drain still a factor in Australia?


RORY HUME: I believe so quite strongly. We keep some very good people; we lose an enormous number of very good people.


PETER THOMPSON: Which is inevitable, isn’t it, as people pursue studies overseas?


RORY HUME: Indeed, but we don’t bring back as many as we lose.


PETER THOMPSON: Because they get paid vasty more, for instance, if they are working in the United States?


RORY HUME: They do. We need places that are able to compete with institutions in the US if we are to have the societal benefits of creativity, new jobs, new wealth, that come from that part of the university sector.


JAMES McWHA: I think Rory is right.


GLYN DAVIS:  It is not just the United States, it is our own region as well. A number of Queensland universities are still reeling from a raiding party from Singapore that came through in the last month and took out a whole series of professors of education here, offering them salaries two or three times that we were able to meet here in Australia. It is our own region: Singapore, Hong Kong, Malaysia and other centres, which were traditionally exporters of students, are now aggressively setting up competition and, quite properly for their own societies of course. Our own region is going to change quite dramatically. Our ability to rely on international students as a principal form of income for universities—and we all do—is going to be tested quite strongly as Singapore and Hong Kong turn around and begin to become importers of students.


PETER THOMPSON: We don’t have much time left. Let me just deal with a couple of questions.


James McWha to you first. Does it seem to you to be extraordinary that Australia does not have one university in the top 100 in the world?


JAMES McWHA: Yes, I do find that extraordinary and I would have thought we should have a number in the top 100. And indeed, it says something for the future of our economic, our social, our cultural development if we cannot have some of our universities in that sort of ranking.


PETER THOMPSON: Glyn Davis, how do we get there?


GLYN DAVIS: I suspect we get there through the strategy of specialisation and diversification—the strategy that Rory Hume has outlined. It is the case that we have individual disciplines and individual schools that are in the top 100 in the world but no university can approach that and that is not surprising. There are hundreds of areas of research importance identified by the Australian Research Council. There is no university in Australia that is going to excel across all of those.




RORY HUME: I agree with my colleagues.


PETER THOMPSON: Just a final one—government. To what extent is greater government commitment required if that sort of goal is going to be achieved?


RORY HUME: I think Australia does need to continue to increase its level of commitment. The OECD figures show we are well behind where we should be. We need a higher level of investment. I don't call it a crisis because I think that is a silly word to use. I think we need a calm recognition that this is a great area of investment in Australia’s future. We need to apply the resources rationally across the sector. We need to be very intelligent to maintain access and equity but also to build nodes of real competitive strength so that we can do all of the things that higher education can achieve.


PETER THOMPSON: And a brief final comment from you, James McWha?


JAMES McWHA: I think the government does need to get in behind the universities, and we also need the business community to get in behind. What we need is support from all those sectors because the universities are indeed the future of the country.




GLYN DAVIS: I agree entirely. The question that many will be asking of this package is how much does it share the burden between individual students and the community. Individual students benefit from university education but so does the community, and how is that burden to be shared?


PETER THOMPSON: Thanks to all three of you. Glyn Davis from Griffith University, James McWha from Adelaide, and Rory Hume from the University of New South Wales; all vice-chancellors who are meeting in Melbourne tomorrow to discuss this yet-to-be-released package of reforms from Brendan Nelson.