Note: Where available, the PDF/Word icon below is provided to view the complete and fully formatted document
President of Vice-Chancellors' Committee discusses cuts to university funding

ELIZABETH JACKSON: Well, it's often been said that one area where the ACT does have a bright future is education. If we could just become the centre for providing and exporting education, we'd be doing pretty well, but Australia's university vice-chancellors believe their facing a very uncertain future. Thirty-six university chiefs met in Canberra yesterday with senior officials from the Department of Employment, Education, Training and Youth Affairs. The President of the Australian Vice-Chancellors' Committee is Professor Fay Gale, and she's with me now. Professor, good morning. Good to have you as our guest this morning. Thank you for joining us. Now, I saw you quoted today in the newspapers as saying that you were shocked and depressed at the future, following the meeting that you had with Senator Vanstone on Monday night. Why are you shocked and depressed?

FAY GALE: Well, we've read a lot about cuts that are coming, and I guess we had expected that there would be some cuts because there was discussion before the election about the possibility of a Budget deficit and it was large. Nevertheless, we were given very strong assurances by the then Shadow Minister and also in a speech from the now Prime Minister, that we would not be cut, that they valued universities, that the quality of universities had gone down during Labor and they were going to make sure that they didn't go down further, and then suddenly we're caught up in this web of what we see as broken promises, but this web of enormous cuts, and very sudden cuts.

ELIZABETH JACKSON: Are you saying that you were led to believe, prior to the election, that there would be some cuts, but certainly not in the magnitude that are being suggested today, something between 5 and 12 per cent?

FAY GALE: We were led to believe that there would be cuts in Australia, but we were given a guarantee that the university sector, in terms of its operating grant and its research funding, would not be cut.

ELIZABETH JACKSON: Okay. So let's look at the outlook. Reports today, as I mentioned earlier, are suggesting cuts of between 5 and 12 per cent.

FAY GALE: Yes.

ELIZABETH JACKSON: That's what they say is likely to happen in the August Budget.

FAY GALE: Yes.

ELIZABETH JACKSON: If the cuts are of that magnitude, what will happen to universities?

FAY GALE: Well, we haven't had time to really work this out. We were in a state of shock. I mean, that's not an exaggeration because they are of such a magnitude. I think it's very difficult for government to understand that universities are not like, you know, factories, in the sense you can't just shut them down. We've got students now that we've taken in, they're doing three, four, five, six-year courses. We have to fund those courses. We can't just cut them off. And we haven't a way of just shutting things off because we're such a long-term kind of venture. I think some universities just won't be able to survive, and what we do about this, we really don't know because, you see, even if you make whole areas redundant, you've still got to pay staff out - you know, the redundancy packages - and if you don't have the money to do that, you're worse off than if you've kept them on.

ELIZABETH JACKSON: Now, you say that some universities will simply no longer be viable, and that of course presents a whole new range of problems. What universities .. are there some universities that will be particularly vulnerable, do you think?

FAY GALE: Well, all universities are going to be seriously affected with cuts of this magnitude in a short time frame. I mean, in a sense, it's possible to take cuts over a long time frame for a university, but not in the kind of one-year jump that's being discussed. The bigger universities, I guess, will be able to do something, but even then, there are going to be serious troubles for staff and students. But some of the regional universities will be in very serious trouble and, what's more important, those country towns and communities will be because they depend on universities; they're part of the industry of some country towns.

ELIZABETH JACKSON: Are you really suggesting, this morning, that some of these universities might simply be forced to close down?

FAY GALE: Well, they've gone back to think about it, but they can see these as impossible consequences. We've had cuts, you know, in the amount of money per student for the last decade to a point of really squeezing, where classes are .. as the now Prime Minister said before the election, where overcrowded classes, poor infrastructure, the university system run down. Well, if it was running down before, it's in a state of almost collapse now.

ELIZABETH JACKSON: There is simply no more fat to cut.

FAY GALE: There isn't. I mean, this is the problem. And also, any kind of cut is a long-term problem, it isn't something you can do overnight.

ELIZABETH JACKSON: Now, the Government, of course, is maintaining that this cutting process that they're going through is a result of the Budget problems left by the previous administration, the now infamous Beazley black hole. Do you accept that argument?

FAY GALE: They knew there was a black hole before the election and therefore, I think, shouldn't have made promises to us, being aware that that was happening. Even so, I don't understand, and none of us in the university sector can understand, why you've got to make up that deficit, as it were, overnight. I mean, we're not trying to buy our houses on mortgage in one year, and so why do you make up this kind of thing in one year. And the other thing that concerned us is the way in which, almost arbitrarily, some areas are exempt. For example, why is defence, which is one of the really big spenders, totally exempt? I mean, I would argue that what the universities do for international relations, in educating the future leaders of so many Asian and south-east Asian countries, is just as good and important investment for peace in this region as defence is.

ELIZABETH JACKSON: When would you expect to see the effects of these decisions starting to impact on campuses?

FAY GALE: Oh, almost immediately because we're talking about the August Budget and we're talking about next year. So it's going to affect enrolments; it's going to affect students who are in their final year at school; it's going to affect staff, contract staff, for example, and they make up, you know, over 40 per cent of our staff - they're going to be feeling very anxious. I think all university vice-chancellors yesterday were talking about going back home and putting a freeze on further appointments. I mean, it's going to be dramatic in a very short time.

ELIZABETH JACKSON: I'm very interested in the point that you made a little earlier, you know, about the smaller universities suffering because, not so long ago, I had the Vice-Chancellor of the ANU, Professor Dean Terrell, sitting before me, talking about a so-called 'gang of eight', the eight strong universities that have been around for a long time, with terrific reputations, and the allegation was that these vice-chancellors had got together and were lobbying the Government for special funding treatment. Do you think we're heading down that road? Do you think we're going to see a situation evolve where we have eight or 10 universities in Australia that have it all, and many others that really do struggle; perhaps some of them close down?

FAY GALE: Well, with the cuts of this kind of order, that's certainly likely to happen. I don't think that's in Australia's long-term interest, though. It is in Australia's long-term interest to have some very strong research universities with high international reputations. There's no doubt about that. Not everybody can or would want to be in that position. However, for all of that, it is still necessary to have universities that are teaching courses that are vocationally oriented, that are offering young people jobs that are going to be around in the next decade, that are teaching young people in areas where they live because Australians are not able to travel the big distances that they do in North America and Britain, they're just too far, we're too scattered a population.

So whilst I understand what the big eight are doing, and Australia does need those kinds of universities, it also needs the other kinds of universities. And the big strengths, I think, of our whole sector of the AVCC is the fact that, over the last decade, we have built up an enormously diverse and very competent university sector.

ELIZABETH JACKSON: Now, just finally, have you met with any members of the ALP or the Australian Democrats or the Greens or Independents, for that matter, in the Senate? I mean, have you had any conversations with them, any assurances that they will do anything to try to stop these cuts from taking place?

FAY GALE: Not at this stage, but clearly we've got that in our sights. You know, we've had these meetings only Monday night and all day yesterday, and then last night. We haven't quite made that, but I'm having a meeting this morning to look at just what our strategy should be.

ELIZABETH JACKSON: Professor Gale, thank you. Professor Fay Gale - she is President of the Australian Vice-Chancellors' Committee.