Inquiry reports on 'crisis' in Oz

October 19, 2001

A year-long investigation into Australian higher education by a senate committee has found the nation's university system in crisis and in need of substantial public investment over the next ten years.

The committee found that universities were seriously underfunded and were worryingly reliant on non-government sources of revenue, notably on fee income from foreign and local students.

It received 364 submissions, held 14 public hearings, heard 219 witnesses and collected 1,353 pages of evidence. In a 360-page report, the committee sets out 39 recommendations intended to address the problems identified by vice-chancellors, academics, students and unions.

Despite the report's enthusiastic reception by education lobby groups, it has received little media attention or public debate, largely because of the effect of the terrorist attacks in America and prime minister John Howard's decision to hold an election on November 10.

Education minister David Kemp dismissed its conclusions as Labor Party propaganda, while government members of the committee disputed the core findings. But the report notes there was almost unanimous agreement that "current levels of (public) funding are inadequate to sustain the quality and diversity of core teaching and research functions".

The report says that over the past decade, the total teaching load for Australia's academics has doubled. Although student enrolments increased by 70 per cent, academic numbers had changed very little and teaching loads were roughly double those in Britain, America or Canada.

The senators are urging the government to adopt a ten-year investment plan that would boost the low incomes of academics to stem the flow of staff to overseas positions.

The report recommends a review of the tuition-fees system and indexation arrangements for university operating grants.

Speaking to the report in parliament, Labor's parliamentary secretary for education, Kim Carr, said the crisis would not be solved by money alone. He said the overwhelming weight of evidence and testimony pointed to a crisis in confidence and a lack of morale, of collegiality and of "transparent public practice at universities, in an environment where established responsibilities for social and ethical obligations are being sacrificed for short-term, expedient financial purposes". "The level of damage sustained has been so great that a 'quick fix' would be neither effective nor desirable," he said.

Other recommendations incl-ude: a national summit on higher education needs; a universities ombudsman to investigate fees and charges and to conciliate complaints; and a cross-sectoral advisory body to give independent advice to the government.

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