Forth's lessons from down under

April 26, 1996

Visiting Australia seems to be in fashion. On arrival here, I found that I was following in the wake of Eric Forth, the minister for higher education. His purpose is similar to mine: to find out what lessons the United Kingdom might learn from Australia.

This has proved a difficult task, partly due to bad timing. The Australians have recently had a change of federal government. The views of the responsible minister are unknown: she revealed little in her recent meeting with vice chancellors, except that she is unlikely to be on their side.

The general expectation is that higher education policies are likely to result in less rather than more expenditure. Not to put too fine a point on it, Australia is broke. Just how broke will not be known until the National Audit Commission has examined the books. One measure of the scale of the crisis is that ministers are to take a 20 per cent pay cut. Rumours of redundancies are rife and vice chancellors are worrying about how to respond to estimated 10 per cent cuts in university funding. Sounds familiar?

Since the future is unknown, what lessons might Mr Forth have learned from Australian experience to date? Many are positive. The Higher Education Contribution Scheme has been a great success. This scheme has perhaps excited most interest in the UK. The evidence suggests that it has proved to be a highly effective way of persuading students not only to invest in their own education but also to ensure the continuation of such opportunities for those following afterwards. The relative ease with which the scheme has been accepted appears to be explained partly by Australian culture which accords a higher priority to the social and community interest than that of the individual. Securing the support of the National Union of Students was also critical. Nor does the introduction of the HECS seem to have reduced access, a key performance indicator monitored closely by the advisory Higher Education Council. The incoming government is likely to modify the scheme rather than scrap it.

On the quality front, views about the success of the Australian review system are mixed. Its future under the new coalition is unknown. The damaging effects of arguments about quality on UK universities' attempts to expand into the lucrative market for overseas students seem to have been avoided in Australia. The vice chancellors' committee has helped: universities put a greater premium on collectively expanding Australian international education than on rubbishing competitor institutions.

But there are signs of fragmentation and stratification in the Australian sector which parallel the UK. The "Great Eight" sandstone universities see themselves as an Australian Russell Group while the "Famous Five" technological universities have their own club.

Most of the universities have sought to diversify their sources of funding, many by co-operating with business. While this reduces their dependence on public funding, the gain in autonomy is of less consequence to Australian universities. They are more sceptical of the benefits of the market in a higher education context than either the British or the Americans.

This is bad news for Mr Forth. So too are the messages about the importance of mechanisms for consulting the education professionals - and the unions - about policy changes and developments. However, all this could change under the new regime which may be less disposed to intervention.

Diana Green is pro vice chancellor of the University of Central England in Birmingham.

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