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Minister will release the first in a series of papers aimed at reforming education.

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LINDA MOTTRAM: The long awaited shake-up of higher education in Australia formally gets under way today with federal Education Minister, Dr Brendan Nelson, travelling to Adelaide to release the first in a series of papers aimed at putting reform ideas on the agenda. Possible changes include scrapping the traditional three-year degree structure, streamlining red tape and, controversially perhaps, giving vice-chancellors more flexibility in the hiring and firing of academics. What is central, Dr Nelson says, is the need to cut costs. The Minister has been speaking to Peter Lloyd.


BRENDAN NELSON: If you think, for example, the sector will receive around $10.4 billion in revenue this year, $6.1 billion of which will come from the Commonwealth government, any government would be negligent—and I am sure the vice-chancellors would agree with me—if we did not ensure that every cent and every dollar that is removed frequently from the low incomes of Australians that are struggling to feed their kids, their car loans and their mortgages, we want to make sure that those resources are administered well and spent efficiently, and spent where Australians in particular both need and want those resources to go.


PETER LLOYD: What areas do you believe there is scope to reduce costs in?


BRENDAN NELSON: I think it would be foolish of me, as the minister at the start of a review which puts all of the cards on the table so to speak, to start to nominate particular areas where I might suggest there is inefficiency. But if we could look at it in a broad sense, for example, one university that I went to offers 167 courses and 96 of those courses have less than five students enrolled.


PETER LLOYD: If cost cutting is on your mind, does that mean that the university campus will become the next battleground for workplace reform?


BRENDAN NELSON: The Chairman of the Australian Vice-Chancellors Committee and my department tell me that in some universities costs of salaries and so on approaches 90 per cent of the universities’ costs, and the vice-chancellors—whether they run larger or smaller institutions—have told me that whilst there have been significant gains in efficiency in the sector—and there is no denying that over the last decade—that there are still some work practices which need to be improved. We need to see that our academics and others who work within universities are able to work increasingly in the same kind of flexible working environment that other Australians are working in, whilst protecting the importance of academic freedom.


PETER LLOYD: What sort of work practices are you concerned about?


BRENDAN NELSON: If a university—and they’re frequently regional universities—if that community says, ‘We desperately need to introduce nursing training’, or ‘We need a particular course in agriculture or agricultural science’, it is very hard for the vice-chancellors and university management to very quickly and efficiently negotiate changed working arrangements to accommodate the changing needs in that particular university.


LINDA MOTTRAM: Federal Education Minister, Brendan Nelson, speaking to Peter Lloyd.