Australian vice chancellors last week rejected a key proposal in the West report on the future of higher education that called for funding universities through student grants or scholarships.
The vice chancellors said that they endorsed the report's "vision" of universal access and public funding of universities, but dismissed vouchers (a term not used in the report itself) as an irrational response to that vision.
The report, prepared by a committee headed by former headmaster Roderick West, says young people should eventually have near universal access to five years of post-secondary education, funded by income-contingent loans.
It proposes a "seamless" post-secondary education system that would provide maximum flexibility and choice for students to opt for courses at university or a technical college. While government controls over student numbers and tuition fees would be abolished, the report says students undertaking their first qualification should not face charges on enrolment without access to a loan.
The report's notion of instilling a culture of lifetime learning and producing a well-informed and socially responsible community has been applauded. Even the harshest critics have also approved the report's arguments for emphasising teaching over research.
But the proposal that a university's government grant would depend on how many students it attracts has created consternation. Regional universities say they would be hardest hit. Ingrid Moses, vice chancellor of the rural University of New England, said: "Those who can afford it will choose expensive education providers - acquire a Rolls-Royce degree, as one West committee member called it - while those who cannot will have to make do with a small economy model."
Although the federal government has ruled out vouchers - the conservative parties lost an election in 1993 with policies which included this - student and academic groups believe that if the Howard government wins the next election, they will be adopted. Education minister David Kemp has supported vouchers for years.
The West committee will consider responses to its proposals and make final recommendations to the government by March.