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Vice-Chancellor and Minister discuss the debate about the future of higher education

JOHN HIGHFIELD: The head of the Australian Vice-Chancellors' Committee, Professor Fay Gale, says universities last a lot longer than governments, or Ministers for that matter. In the latest round of the argument between the universities and the Federal Education Minister, Senator Amanda Vanstone, Professor Gale has endorsed the view that the Federal Government needs to project a more rounded vision for the future of higher education. Earlier this week, after Senator Vanstone accused universities of being afraid of the dark when it was their job to light the path for changed management, university chiefs responded with one reputedly saying the Minister was reaching the stage of hysteria. Professor Gale and Senator Vanstone crossed paths today at a conference in Perth. P.M.'s John McNamara.

JOHN MCNAMARA: Is it a genuine heartfelt debate about the future of university education or a beat-up to promote one newspaper's higher education supplement? Education Minister, Senator Amanda Vanstone, is known in Government and Opposition as a plain speaker. On Monday, that plain speech included saying that universities are not qualified to advise the nation on managing change when they're incapable of managing it themselves, and that there was a deliberate campaign of misinformation abroad in the land over what the Government is doing to university funding, misinformation being fed to the media by what she calls 'vested interests'.

Another day, another city, another conference: this time, university administrators in Perth, but much the same message from Senator Vanstone.

AMANDA VANSTONE: What I've said is that journalists and universities have a common interest in finding the truth, and that the higher education debate, thus far, has been anything but enlightening. We read in some newspapers, 1.8 billion cut from higher education. When you realise it's actually 680 million over four years, against $20 billion in expenditure, you have to really ask yourself, 'Well, is this debate casting light?' and the answer is no.

JOHN MCNAMARA: What do you think, though, of the charge today, at least, that your bottom line is purely fiscal, you're yet to enunciate a vision for higher education, apart from a fiscal one?

AMANDA VANSTONE: Well, that's simply not true. Of course, the vision that we have outlined for higher education is one of more students, more undergraduate students next year, greater access for students; we're going to return to universities the HECS contribution made by students that they over-enrol - the previous Government simply pocketed that money and kept it from universities. We want to allow universities to sell places, once they've fulfilled all their government-funded places. Therefore, I think the vision is described as 'more access for more students' and one of greater autonomy for universities and much more diversity for universities. And except for the very, very small cut in operating grant, universities have basically got, from this Government, what they wanted.

JOHN MCNAMARA: So is the Vice-Chancellors' Committee, presumably as vested an interest as one could get in the area of higher education, prepared to plead guilty to spreading disinformation. Professor Fay Gale is head of the University of Western Australia and also leader of the Vice-Chancellors' Committee.

FAY GALE: I don't think we are at all, in fact I know we're not. We meet regularly. As vice-chancellors, we share a lot of information. We know we're making very big changes, and we're not putting out misinformation. In actual fact, when we say that 'If you do this, something will happen,' we know it will happen; and it's not our fault if it happens, it's actually Federal Government policy.

JOHN MCNAMARA: But Senator Vanstone seems to be suggesting that universities can't tell the rest of the world how to run things, when they can't get their own act together. You, obviously, would reject that assertion.

FAY GALE: I totally reject it .. I mean, I think on two grounds: one, that universities are the leaders of thought, and we produce all of the leaders. I mean, she, herself, is a product of university, as indeed are sort of the Cabinet and in any area, universities are the leaders, and we cannot have a civilised society without very strong universities. So I reject it completely. And I also reject the concept that comes from that, that we're not planning, that we're not being accountable. In actual fact, we're planning at an enormous speed, planning for change, making changes, and the kind of university that exists now is totally different from the one she went to as a student, and I think sometimes that's forgotten.

JOHN MCNAMARA: Then what's going on? Why is there all this back and forth slanging going on between the vice-chancellors and the Minister?

FAY GALE: Well, we're trying not to slang. We may sometimes be....

JOHN MCNAMARA: There was pretty strong reaction to her comments on Monday, though, wasn't there?

FAY GALE: Yes, they were very strong comments. I mean, we try to work together, but we're obviously not going to be bulldozed over because we believe in what we're doing and we've got long-term goals. And universities last a lot longer than Ministers or Government, and we've got to ensure the future, and we're not going to be knocked over in doing that, but I think we try to be polite and keep those doors open. And we did have a very strong conference last weekend, the weekend before in Brisbane, for three days, where we really worked .. all the vice-chancellors together came out unanimously in what our goals and visions were and how we were working with the present Government to achieve those. That's an enormous step forward, and I think she really appreciates that, even though sometimes she'll have a go at us.

JOHN HIGHFIELD: Professor Fay Gale of the Australian Vice-Chancellors' Committee, with John McNamara in Perth.