Australian sector asks for cash to compete with US

Universities seek more funding to try to keep pace with the global elite, reports John Gill.

January 10, 2008

Australia will never have a world-leading university such as Oxford or Harvard unless funding is dramatically increased, the head of a leading universities group has said.

Alan Robson, chairman of Australia's Group of Eight, warned that the country could not expect to compete with the international elite unless it was better supported by the Government, business and philanthropy.

In an interview with The Australian newspaper, he said: "It's not that money is the answer for everything, but in my view ... it is really a matter that without that level of funding you won't be able to go into the level of Harvard and Oxford."

Professor Robson's view was mirrored by Richard Larkins, the incoming chairman of Universities Australia, the national body representing 38 higher education institutions.

Professor Larkins said the Government needed to do "substantially more" to help institutions compete.

"To be competitive internationally with the top-ranking universities there does need to be substantially more funding available to Australian universities," he told the paper.

"This could be substantially more Government funding or deregulation. My preference would be for substantially more funding."

The comments come as a timely reminder of higher education's needs for the new Labor Government of Prime Minister Kevin Rudd, although Professor Robson said there was optimism that the new administration would address the problems the sector was facing.

He said key areas to be addressed included the decline of federal funding per student, the worsening staff-to-student ratio and the growing pressure on universities to fund research infrastructure.

One factor hindering Australian universities, according to Vicki Thomson, director of the Australian Technology Network of Universities, is the relative lack of philanthropy compared with the US. She argued that Australia was better placed to strengthen its university system as a whole, rather than trying to elevate one or two institutions into the world top ten.

Simon Marginson, chairman of higher education at the University of Melbourne, said Australia could not expect to compete with top universities in the US, whose higher education spending last year was 18 times that of Australia's budget. He said Britain and Canada were better sparring partners.

He said: "We are up against the sheer size of the US. It's not just the size of the universities - it's the economic, technological and social powers of the country."

Measures being taken by the Prime Minister to address challenges facing the sector include plans to increase the number of full fee-paying places, providing 11,000 more places for priority courses such as teaching and engineering, and A$202 million (Pounds 87 million) more for scholarships.

But Tony Smith, the Opposition Education Spokesman, accused the Government of leaving universities in the dark about funding.

john.gill@tsleducation.com.

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