Relations between vice chancellors and the Australian government are close to breaking point after the education minister Amanda Vanstone called them helpless and unqualified to advise society on managing change because they could not manage it themselves.
Senator Vanstone told a higher education conference in Sydney that the universities seemed "afraid of the dark" and had been too dependent on government since Labor's reforms in the late 1980s.
Although her comments were typical of a minister who often displays contempt for opponents, they were poorly timed. The government is struggling to get its reforms through the senate where it is in a minority and, rather than antagonising vice chancellors, needs their broad support.
The remarks produced an angry reaction from vice chancellors, who variously described the statements as hysterical, misleading and a gratuitous insult. Geoff Wilson, deputy president of the Australian Vice Chancellors' Committee, said the minister kept looking for red herrings to divert attention from the real agenda of the government which was to impose cuts.
But Senator Vanstone said universities had run an "ill-informed and misleading" debate over the government's decision to cut grants to institutions. She said the funding mechanisms in Labor's Unified National System had created a culture of dependence that was at odds with the traditions of autonomy. By allowing institutions to admit full fee-paying Australian undergraduates and offering financial incentives for them to over-enrol other students, the government was "initiating a culture change" that was well within the reach of the university community.
Universities, however, appeared unable to manage that change. While many citizens were apprehensive about the impact of technology on their lives, "how horrified they would be to discover that those in whom they placed confidence not only don't have a map to show the rest of the community where they should be going, but themselves feel helpless and totally dependent on government in seeking to cope with the changes facing their own institutions.
"How desperately alone and alienated they would feel if they believed that those who are entrusted to light the path are afraid of the dark," the minister said.
The AVCC has just released its first formal commentary on the government's August budget. It effectively endorses Senator Vanstone's plans to increase student tuition fees through the Higher Education Contribution Scheme.
Academics and students reacted angrily and accused the committee of "bowing to Vanstone's threats".
The AVCC called on the government to offer bigger incentives for students and graduates to repay any HECS debts they had incurred and thereby ease the burden of cuts. It suggested offering a 20 per cent discount if a student paid the HECS fee before the end of the semester of enrolment, a 15 per cent reduction for voluntary repayments of $500 (Pounds 250) or more, and a 25 per cent discount if a student made up the total debt within one year.
The committee urged the government to reconsider its plans to split HECS fees into three increasingly costly bands. Vice chancellors were concerned that student enrolments in some areas would be affected by the increased charges and said all band allocations should be reviewed within two years.