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7.30 Report Universities announce staffing cutbacks amid funding crisis


Universities announce staffing cutbacks amid funding crisis

Broadcast: 01/12/2008


KERRY O’BRIEN: As the Federal Government was doling out money to the states at the weekend for schools, university vice-chancellors looked on with some degree of envy.

They've been issuing dire warnings that they're struggling to make ends meet and compete internationally.

This coincides with the December deadline for the Government-commissioned Bradley Review, set up earlier this year to examine problems in the tertiary sector, which has campaigned for a big funding catch-up after cutbacks over the past decade.

Universities fear the global financial and economic crisis will have a particular impact on their sector. In Melbourne alone, three universities have announced staffing cutbacks amid predictions that next year will be particularly tough.

Heather Ewart reports.

HEATHER EWART: It's a time-honoured academic tradition dating back centuries. At the University of Melbourne, graduation night is conducted with all the pomp and ceremony of its esteemed British counterparts.

This time one of its own former students and law graduates, the Minister for Education Julia Gillard is the proud guest of honour. Invited to give the annual Sir Robert Menzies oration on higher education in the grand Melba Hall.

Across town on the same night, in the less salubrious western suburbs there is a gathering of a very different, in a community hall bordering on Julia Gillard's electorate.

MICHAEL CLARKE, MARIBYRNONG COUNCIL: This is all about the demise of a great institution, a great institution in the western region, Victoria University.

HEATHER EWART: Anxious parents, teachers, students and community leaders have met to protest at the announcement of 270 job cuts at Victoria University, which caters to some of the more disadvantaged areas of Melbourne.

SCOTT JORDAN, VICTORIA UNI STUDENT ACTION GROUP: I was given an opportunity from this university to study, I was given the opportunity to rise above and succeed. That opportunity may not be afforded to your children. You need to understand that. We are seeing the possibility of massive cuts.

JAMES DOUGHNEY, NATIONAL TERTIARY EDUCATION UNION: It is without question the biggest redundancy program ever contemplated in an Australian university.

HEATHER EWART: Victoria University is not alone. Though its vice-chancellor has chosen to cut far deeper than others. But right across the tertiary sector, universities are doing it tough. Even the elite University of Melbourne is getting rid of up to 20 academic staff by Christmas. While La Trobe University in outer Melbourne is shedding 230 academic and general staff.

PAUL JOHNSON, VICE-CHANCELLOR, LA TROBE UNIVERSITY: At La Trobe University and every university in Australia, the real level of public funding has been declining over a very long period.

ELIZABETH HARMAN, VICE-CHANCELLOR, VICTORIA UNIVERSITY: That's one of the reasons why I think places like Victoria University, we need to get our own house in order and look after ourselves.

GLYN DAVIS, VICE-CHANCELLOR, UNIVERSITY OF MELBOURNE: I think it's true that if we don't see policy change in 2009 it will be very difficult for a number of universities to carry on as they currently are.

HEATHER EWART: Soon after its election, the Federal Government appointed what's become known as the Bradley Review to take a sweeping look at the problems besetting the tertiary sector.

JULIA GILLARD, FEDERAL EDUCATION MINISTER: And to chart a strategy for the next 10, 15, 20 years.

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GLYN DAVIS: There comes a point at which the fund something so thin that the quality of what you can offer students and therefore the next generation and therefore the nation, begins to suffer. We run the very serious risk that we're very much at that limit now.

HEATHER EWART: The Bradley Review is due to report before Christmas. There is no doubt the tertiary sector has very high expectations. Not just about funding but how the sector's regulated. Vice chancellors are putting last minute pressure on the Government because they fear the global financial crisis could delay what they see as long overdue reforms. Maybe their fears are well founded.

JULIA GILLARD: The global financial crisis and the looming global recession has cut our revenues by $40 billion, that's going to be on the Government's mine as we weigh all Budget bids including anything that arises from the Bradley Review.

HEATHER EWART: Universities stand to be hit by the crises in other ways too. For several years now as Government funding has declined, they've come to rely on international students for revenue. It's now one of Australia's biggest export industries.

GLYN DAVIS: We're all watching anxiously the dollar and international markets because all of us depend crucially on international income from students. As the number of international students begins to fall that will have major ramifications across the sector.

PAUL JOHNSON: I think Australia is in a curious position. We end up with the research base of the higher education sector, largely supported by the fees payed by students from developing countries. That I think is not a sustainable position for any developed economy to be in.

HEATHER EWART: OECD surveys show in the past decade developed economies worldwide have boosted public funding of their tertiary sectors. Australia goes against that grain. The risk is that it may not be able to keep up with the growing international competition.

GLYN DAVIS: We need to spend as a nation, literally billions to rebuild our campuses to build them up to the standard we expect to see internationally.

PAUL JOHNSON: There is a real danger that we could lapse into mediocrity.

HEATHER EWART: La Trobe University was built in the late 1960s. It's had little refurbishment or renovation since, and while the Government points to the $500 million available in its capital investment program, for urgent building works, the universities argue it's not nearly enough.

Some of the leading sandstone universities are urging the Government to consider a radical shift to make up the difference.

GLYN DAVIS: The minimum it must do is to decide either there is going to be significant public investment, further investment in universities, or they must deregulate price to allow us to charge.

JULIA GILLARD: We do not believe in full fee paying places for Australian undergraduate students.

HEATHER EWART: But the Government it seems is open to calls for other forms of deregulation and flexibility.

JULIA GILLARD: I'm certainly sympathetic in general to the universities saying Government has micro managed their operations and that degree of red tape and regulation is not working.

GLYN DAVIS: Canberra decides how many students you can take in any course, exactly what you can charge for them, what campuses you can teach on. Every aspect of the public side of our operation is highly regulated.

HEATHER EWART: But any talk of deregulation brings with it warnings of creating a two class system. And those that cater to regional students, or have regional campuses like La Trobe, say they should not be forgotten.

PAUL JOHNSON: We have to recognise that higher education provision in regional areas is more expensive and quite a lot more, by about 25 per cent per student.

JULIA GILLARD: We've said to universities around this country, we recognise they are not a one size fits all job.

HEATHER EWART: The Government has some tough decisions to make as every sector clamours for funds. The final pitch from vice-chancellors is that when Australia face as growing skill shortage universities should not be at the end of the queue.

PAUL JOHNSON: A focus on working families ultimately has to be a focus on the skills of those working families and the Government has to deliver on that agenda.


The Government will decide in the new year whether to embrace the thrust of the Bradley recommendations or put a key element of its education revolution on hold for now.

KERRY O’BRIEN: Another big education challenge for the Government and that report from Heather

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