Australian v-cs unite against cuts and performance-linked funding

University leaders highlight teaching funding proposal’s similarity to England’s TEF and fear ‘perverse incentives’ 

May 22, 2017
Margaret Gardner
Margaret Gardner

Australian vice-chancellors have unanimously opposed government proposals to cut university funding and increase tuition fees, while concerns have also been raised about plans to introduce performance-based funding for teaching.

The proposals, which were first announced by education minister Simon Birmingham earlier this month, have now been formalised in new draft legislation.

As part of the plans, university funding will be cut by 2.5 per cent and tuition fees will increase by 7.5 per cent. Meanwhile, there are plans to ensure that 7.5 per cent of teaching funding will be “performance-based”.

The government also announced that funded postgraduate places would be reduced by 3,000 nationally and move to a new voucher system where scholarships are allocated to students rather than universities.

Universities Australia said that there was “unanimous opposition” to the proposals to cut funding and increase fees among leaders of the country’s universities – a stance also expressed in sector leaders’ comments to Times Higher Education.

Ian Jacobs, vice-chancellor of the University of New South Wales, said that the announcements were of “major concern” and “reveal a lack of recognition by the government of the nexus between a vibrant university sector and the long-term health of Australia’s society and economy”.

He added that there is a “danger” that the metrics used for performance-based funding in teaching will be “poorly thought through, result in perverse incentives and/or generate pointless administrative activity”.

Michael Spence, vice-chancellor of the University of Sydney, said that while the government has provided only limited details regarding the changes to teaching funding, “there appear to be similarities with [England’s] teaching excellence framework”.

“If improving teaching quality was a concern, we would not be seeing university funding cuts of A$2.8 billion (£1.6 billion),” he added.

“A major concern is that none of the performance metrics flagged to date relate to research. Currently, 20 to 30 per cent of government university funding in Australia is intended to support research, so this change would likely place even greater pressure on universities to cross-subsidise already under-funded research.”

Margaret Gardner, chair of Universities Australia, said that any performance metrics “would need to be worked through meticulously and with great caution to ensure that any such system did not penalise universities that serve communities with the highest rates of unemployment and social disadvantage, or those with student demographics that have the biggest challenges in degree completions”.

She added that the proposed postgraduate voucher system “would be a profound shift in the way in which Australian university funding operates” and “one that I don’t think has been the subject of extensive discussion within the university sector nor the Australian community”.

Attila Brungs, vice-chancellor of the University of Technology Sydney, said that “in theory” the proposal to tie a proportion of teaching funding to “performance on transparency, student retention and graduate success provides positive incentives for universities to meet student and societal needs”.

“However, it will succeed – or fail dreadfully – depending on the implementation details, which unfortunately have not yet been developed,” he said.

He added that while he did not think the government was looking for universities to become more teaching focused, one of the “likely effects” of the changes “will be the degradation of Australian universities’ research capacity and their ability to provide research-inspired teaching”.

ellie.bothwell@timeshighereducation.com 

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Print headline: Australian v-cs unite to oppose government cuts, performance plans

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