Australia's vice-chancellors have called for greater freedom for their universities, arguing their institutions labour under a "one-size-fits-all" policy that must be changed.
Deryck Schreuder, president of the Australian Vice-Chancellors' Committee, said he and his colleagues wanted a shift from government-set quotas for student places to a variety of enrolments, funded at more appropriate per-student rates and reflecting demand and performance over time.
Professor Schreuder said existing targets were historically based and increasingly failed to represent the uneven demand from students across the sector, by region or institution.
A mechanism was needed that was sensitive to a range of educational and social indicators, allowing for a "dynamic process of load allocation and re-allocation".
"The AVCC favours a flexible and controllable range of target load in which universities receive public funds based on their capacity to attract and retain Australian students," he said. "Mission and 'market' would come together in such an approach."
At the same time, vice-chancellors wanted expanded equity of access so students hoping to go to university would not be penalised for lack of money or lack of encouragement from their families.
Universities should also have the option to vary tuition charges, up or down, currently fixed under the Higher Education Contribution Scheme.
Professor Schreuder said this would mean any additional costs were covered by income-contingent loans, repaid when a student reached a certain income level. The key Hecs principle - "education is free at the point of entry" - should be preserved, he said.
"Within the overall policy framework set by government, universities would be best placed to weigh the factors which determine such Hecs levels. They would surely take into account issues of equity and access, market and costs. The creation of additional places, including equity entry and support, could also then be determined in an environment of community knowledge and university mission," he said.
With the government undertaking a wholesale review of the entire higher education sector, serious divisions over the future shape of the system have developed between the better-off, older universities and the newer, less well-endowed institutions. But Professor Schreuder appeared to be setting out the consensus vice-chancellors have reached on the key issues.