lesson from down under

June 28, 1996

Amanda Vanstone, Australia's minister responsible for higher education (among much else) has, after only a few months in office, made herself quite a reputation - and not one to envy. The former shadow Attorney-General is on the receiving end of the animosity and frustration felt by Australian university staff, students and vice chancellors as they wait for August's budget. She is also on the receiving end of a vociferous anti-cuts campaign.

The conservative Coalition went into the March federal election allowing universities to believe it would not cut higher education funding, though on-the-record statements do not quite bear out vice chancellors' confident assertion that they had a clear promise.

Its equivocation became understandable when, once elected, it reported the discovery of a "black hole" left by Labor in the public finances amounting to Aus$8billion (Pounds 4 billion) and began to search for ways to fill it.

Senator Vanstone's call for vice chancellors and institutions to suggest ways that a reduction of anything from 2 to 12 per cent could be made was naturally seen as in effect asking universities to nominate which limb they would like lopped off: as a divide and conquer tactic. Unprecedented solidarity united the Australian Vice Chancellors' Committee, the main academic union, undergraduate and postgraduate student organisations and other scholarly groups. Strikes and protests were called. But, and for this she will never be forgiven, the tactic has apparently begun to work. First the eight largest research universities and then the universities of Victoria have broken ranks.

Senator Vanstone is accused of having a limited understanding of Australian higher education and of not fighting effectively for her department's interests. She is said not to appreciate the relationship between a properly funded higher education sector, a well-educated population and the nation's long-term prosperity.

Behind the rage lies nostalgia and regret. Whatever happened to "the clever country" slogan and the relatively warming sunshine that helped Australian higher education through the radical restructuring begun by Labor minister John Dawkins in the late 1980s, that allowed rapid expansion and made Australia a major international provider of English language higher education. The vice chancellors' request for a meeting with prime minister John Howard over the issue of funding cuts is a measure of the outrage and a calculated insult to the minister.

What can be learned from Australia's pain? After all it had apparently cracked the funding conundrum with its Higher Education Contributions Scheme. Experts, not least the Brits, impressed by the huge increase in access, have been visiting in droves to see if the scheme could be transplanted, and have been particularly interested in the speed with which initially vociferous protest died down.

The main lesson is the importance of gaining and keeping control of any charging system. Australian universities do not have full control of HECS. Although the money flows directly to them from the students and repayments go into a separate trust fund, universities do not set the contribution levels nor the fee structure. They cannot counteract government cuts by hiking fees. They cannot even threaten to. The second lesson is not to put faith in politicians on the stump. There is nothing less accountable than a newly elected government with a comfortable majority.

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