THE AUSTRALIAN government is to insist that universities be made more accountable through the use of performance indicators and may require students to take a final-year test of basic abilities.
Federal education minister David Kemp warned universities last week that they must offer more information to allow prospective students to make proper choices, improve their performance and be more publicly accountable.
In his first major speech since the West report into the future of higher education was published last month, Dr Kemp effectively spelled out the conservatives' next-term agenda for higher education - if the coalition parties win the election.
He made it clear the government had no intention of giving universities extra money to meet the cost of any further staff pay rises. On the contrary, he accused the institutions of poor management and implied they spent too much already on administration.
He applauded the Australian National University for "de-layering its administrative staffing" and said the ANU had saved Aus$5 million (Pounds 2.5 million) in central administration expenses. Non-academic staff represent 56 per cent of all employees.
His comments drew immediate fire from academics, students and vice-chancellors. John Niland, president of the Australian Vice-chancellors' Committee, described some of Dr Kemp's claims as simplistic, inaccurate and glib.
But Dr Kemp said that reporting on quality had to be improved to better inform student choice and assure Australians and the international community of Australia's higher education standards. "Each university will be required to provide a quality assurance and improvement plan linked to its annual strategic plan," he said.
While each university would present its own quality indicators, they would all have to include the outcomes of the annual graduate destination survey and results of the national graduate satisfaction survey. Universities would also have to report on the satisfaction of employers with their graduates.
In a speech to an Organisation of Economic Cooperation and Development conference in Sydney, Dr Kemp proposed a test for graduates that could be used to compare their performance with those in other countries.
He said the American Graduate Record Examination might be modified for Australia.
The National Tertiary Education Union expressed amazement at the idea and said testing of "basic skills" should be addressed before entry to university.
NTEU president Carolyn Allport said there were more professional methods of assessment than a "one-off, crude snapshot of ability that the suggested basic skills test would inevitably provide".
While ruling out key recommendations of the West review, such as wholesale deregulation and the introduction of student vouchers, Dr Kemp said he would discuss with universities how a future policy and financing framework could be developed that would "further strengthen the links between student choice and funding mechanisms".
Professor Niland said that while the government's demand that universities find more productivity trade-offs to pay for further salary increases might have been justified in the early stages of a new enterprise bargaining regime, universities were now entering a critical phase of third-round bargaining.
"The minister's suggestions for further cost-saving downplay what has been done and inflate the potential saving of what can still be done. Moreover, his lumping of universities into a basket of 'all other service organisations', as if they are all at the same stage of efficiency, is glib."