Minister has his say Down Under

January 21, 2005

Times Higher reporters look at pressures on courses in basic subjects worldwide

Six years ago, Australia's largest university, Monash, faced a A$40 million (£16 million) shortfall as a result of federal funding cuts.

When it announced plans to make hundreds of staff redundant and shut half the 25 departments in its arts faculty, campus-wide strikes and other industrial action loomed.

Across Australia, other universities were equally hard-hit by the Government's decision to slash A$1 billion over four years from higher education. They, too, decided to cut staff numbers, close departments and cancel subjects without sufficient students.

Today, the situation has improved markedly as universities have found alternative sources of revenue to federal subsidies. The Government, however, retains considerable control over the courses universities may offer, and the Education Minister has the power to stop funding particular undergraduate subjects.

"Universities have flexibility to determine courses offered, but there are influencing factors," said John Mullarvey, chief executive of the Australian Vice-Chancellors' Committee.

"All courses are subject to approval by the university's academic board or equivalent."

But Mr Mullarvey said those "influencing factors" included the minister deciding not to subsidise students taking a particular course or, under a new system of student loans this year, not providing funds for tuition.

"To the extent that a university needs (federal) funding for a course or for fee-paying students to have access to loans to make the course viable, the minister's power to intervene could prevent a course from being offered," Mr Mullarvey said.

He added that a new method of allocating grants to universities this year would create pressures to align internal spending to external income. This meant that there would be incentives to increase the number of student places where costs seemed less than the income and to reduce the number where costs exceeded income.

"We are yet to see how interventionist the minister proves to be in holding universities to the precise cluster-by-cluster allocations of load," Mr Mullarvey said.

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