Australia's campus revolution rolls on

September 6, 2002

Six months after the Australian government announced a review of higher education, followed by seven discussion papers setting out proposals for change, staff must now wait a further three months to learn what it all means.

Federal education minister Brendan Nelson initiated the review in March after declaring the existing system of funding and organisation unsustainable. It was time to take stock "of where we are, where we want to go and how we intend to get there".

Policy analysts, guided by vice-chancellors, heads of academies, business leaders and bureaucrats, have been churning out the discussion papers, with the seventh released last week. Each has generated widespread controversy and debate.

The first paper, Higher Education at the Crossroads , outlined agenda items that included reforming university funding, teaching, degree structures, academic working conditions, management and university specialisation. The second suggested teaching-only universities, formal education qualifications for academics, and compulsory skills tests for students enrolling and graduating. The third proposed four funding options with two calling for a system of vouchers.

The fourth paper argued for rationalisation of courses and subjects. It proposed undergraduate-only universities and more specialised institutions, as well as US-style degrees that required a general year. The fifth paper highlighted the continuing underrepresentation of Aboriginal Australians in higher education and their poor performance. The sixth paper caused alarm by proposing another idea borrowed from America: teaching-only semester contracts for academics so they would have a job for nine months of the year. It suggested changes to university governing bodies with virtually no representation of staff or students, and a ban on the staff union setting working conditions and salaries.

The seventh paper covered the relationship between higher education and Australia's far larger vocational education and training sector. It proposed extending the Higher Education Contribution Scheme, the unique system by which university students can defer tuition fees until they graduate and have a job, to technical college students undertaking higher education courses.

Dr Nelson is organising focus- group discussions that will be followed by a public symposium early next month. State, territory and federal education ministers will meet to discuss outcomes from the review papers and the symposium.

Dr Nelson will take his reform plans to the Cabinet, possibly in December, allowing time for the changes and spending issues to be included in next year's budget.

How the conflicting suggestions in the discussion papers will be reconciled is the big question. But Dr Nelson has made it clear that the present system will be changed - almost certainly via a complete reform of funding, substantial rationalisation of courses if not institutions, and more freedom for universities.

The minister has also ruled out a return to full government funding of higher education on the grounds this would add another A$4 billion (£1.4 billion) a year to federal spending on universities.

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