The Australian senate has established an inquiry into university funding, with special emphasis on the effects of an increasing reliance on private income.
The senate sub-committee will report next year in the run-up to the election. The inquiry's terms of reference were decided by the opposition Labor and Democrat parties. The terms are far broader than those of the West review, the government's inquiry into higher education of two years ago, whose recommendations have been largely ignored.
The inquiry will consider whether university funding is adequate to meet Australia's education, training and research needs. Other issues to be examined will include equality of opportunity in the participation of under-represented groups, the impact of differential student fees under the higher education contribution scheme and the adequacy of student income support.
Since Mr Howard took office in 1996, higher education has suffered drastic cuts in federal expenditure, higher student fees and a marked decline in staff numbers.
Meanwhile, a book out this month says the revolution in Australian higher education is undermining the identity of universities and leading to a crisis of purpose.
Forms of university governance and academic work that survived previous restructures are now under more direct assault, Mark Considine and Simon Marginson argue in The Enterprise University: Power, Governance and Reinvention in Australia. The senior executives controlling the future of universities have more power and less room to manoeuvre, they say.
The authors argue that Australia's universities risk losing sight of their achievements and their identities. They say that all Australian universities are now to a greater or lesser degree "enterprise universities", linking a mixed public-private economy to a "quasi-business culture and to academic traditions partly reconstituted, partly republican and partly broken".
But the enterprise university, as a model, has its limitations:
* Its leaders are too detached from those they lead
* Too often, it works around and against academic cultures rather than through them
* The internal community has been thinned out, and fewer points of decision-making matter to overall mission and identity
* The ethic of the university is in danger - the goal "is not to meet a range of social, economic and cultural purposes - it is serving its corporate self as an end".