Oz waits for Kemp to show true colours

October 17, 1997

AUSTRALIAN universities are privately assessing the weight of history while publicly extending the welcome mat to the new minister for higher education.

Prime minister John Howard last week relegated Amanda Vanstone from cabinet to a junior ministry. Senator Vanstone has been the minister responsible for implementing sweeping changes to Australian higher education in the past 18 months.

Her replacement, David Kemp, is a former academic with a long history of reform proposals for higher education.

Universities are now waiting for Dr Kemp to reveal himself as either a man on a mission of unfinished business, or as one with a new agenda.

While Senator Vanstone was portrayed as doing someone else's dirty work, Dr Kemp is the chief architect of the coalition's education policy.

In opposition he gained many critics for his pursuit of a deregulated higher education sector with schemes including student vouchers and opening funding to competition between public and private providers.

Dr Kemp was a senior lecturer and professor of political science at Melbourne and Monash universities.

During his time as minister of schools and vocational education he displayed a passion for issues, most notably literacy and more industry-relevant vocational training.

The official welcome from the Australian Vice-Chancellors' Committee was genial, but urged an end to the short-term vision it believed has characterised the government's higher education policy. Geoff Wilson, acting president of the AVCC, said the appointment represented an excellent opportunity for the government to refocus its energies on the sector's long-term needs.

"What is needed is a strategic approach to the critical issues of funding, access, teaching and research quality, and ensuring both students and institutions are well placed to respond to the opportunities of globalisation," Professor Wilson said.

Lachlan Chipman, Central Queensland University's vice chancellor, said Dr Kemp's academic experience would bring integrity to the portfolio.

"He's probably a minister with a level of senior experience within the sector that is unprecedented, certainly rare," he said.

However, some politicians are aghast at his appointment. Victorian premier Jeff Kennett said he preferred Senator Vanstone to Dr Kemp, who in his previous ministry had often clashed with the state governments.

Natasha Stott Despoja, the Australian Democrats' higher education spokeswoman, was stunned by Dr Kemp's appointment. "It was bad enough under Vanstone - Kemp is likely to completely emasculate the education sector," she said.

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