Pre-poll lobby for more cash

March 1, 1996

Australia's vice chancellors, academics and students have united in demanding the next federal government take immediate action to avert a crisis in higher education.

The vice chancellors' committee was backed by academic and student groups when it warned political parties vying for power in tomorrow's election that higher education institutions were at risk.

Releasing a pre-election policy statement, committee president Fay Gale said inadequate funding and cuts in the name of efficiency since the mid-1980s had eroded much of the infrastructure of universities to the point of obsolescence. "We hope desperately that whoever is in government, they will take our comments on board," she said.

The National Tertiary Education Union, the National Union of Students and the Council of Australian Postgraduate Associations joined with the call for a commitment from the Labor and conservative parties to allocate more money to higher education.

Tertiary union president Carolyn Allport said academics fully supported the demand. NUS president Lori Faraone said public spending cuts were part of a long-term process that would eventually lead to universal upfront fees.

The conservative opposition plans this time contrast starkly with the radical shake-up of universities it promised in the last election. Having learned that spelling out dramatic reform before an election is a sure-fire way to lose, the conservative parties are promising to touch little of what the Labor government has set up.

In higher education, the only really controversial element in their policy document is a planned budget cut of Aus$171 million (Pounds 86 million) over the next three years. Labor's quality assurance programme would be scrapped and the university system effectively deregulated.

More autonomy would be welcomed by vice chancellors. At their policy launch in Melbourne, Professor Gale said vice chancellors should be given greater power to negotiate directly with their staff over wages and conditions without interference from unions or the government.

She welcomed the opposition's promise to allow universities and staff unions to deal at the institutional level. But she repeated the v-cs' demand that the government meet the full cost of salary rises.

The AVCC was not against universities working more efficiently nor did vice chancellors recoil from scrutiny or accountability, Professor Gale said.

But continued erosion of resources, infrastructure and remuneration relativity would seriously damage universities' effectiveness and their capacity to contribute to Australia's development.

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