Tasmanian v-c offers key backing for Australian reforms

Island state university’s stance could prove pivotal, with bill’s future hingeing on Tasmanian senator’s vote

September 15, 2020
Tasmania  The Nut Stanley
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The head of Tasmania’s only university has backed the Australian government’s overhaul of university fees and subsidies, potentially boosting the reforms’ prospects of winning parliamentary approval.

University of Tasmania (UTas) vice-chancellor Rufus Black recommended that the Senate pass the government’s “Job-ready Graduates” legislation in a presentation to a Senate committee that is reviewing the bill.

The recommendation could prove pivotal as cross-bench Senator Jacqui Lambie, whose support would secure the bill’s passage, is a staunch advocate of the island state.

But Professor Black’s intervention puts him at odds with many of his own staff, after the academic union’s Tasmanian division took out a newspaper advertisement imploring senators to block the bill. The government’s funding cuts and tuition fee hikes “will take the fairness out of uni”, the union warned.

Professor Black argued that the bill was in UTas’ interests because it sought to increase participation in higher education, particularly in regional Australia. He said Tasmania had Australia’s lowest participation rates and its most regionally dispersed population, and had reached its current enrolment cap.

Echoing the university’s submission to the committee, he said increasing UTas’ capacity to accommodate domestic students was “critical for seeing more Tasmanians in higher education. It’s also critical in seeing us grow domestic load from mainland students in order to be a long-term sustainable university that is not nearly so dependent on international students.”

Professor Black said the university had “concerns” about the proposed fee hikes. “That said, we’ve tested the effects of those pricing changes, and we don’t anticipate that they will have a negative effect on students’ choices,” he said.

The opposition Labor Party, which opposes the bill, accused him of being “in cahoots” with the government in supporting legislation that lowered government teaching grants and abolished two loadings, with proceeds to be diverted into “largely discretionary” funding arrangements.

Labor Senator Kim Carr asked the vice-chancellor if he was comfortable that “specific undertakings” from the government had not been guaranteed in the legislation. “I have confidence that the government will deliver on those commitments,” Professor Black said.

He criticised the government’s plan to use “price signals” to shepherd students into occupations of perceived employment growth, by lowering tuition fees in disciplines such as science and maths. It would be both fairer and more “economically rational” to apportion fees and subsidies according to a “public-private benefits split”, Professor Black said.

He also acknowledged research funding as an unfinished “piece” of the reforms, but said current arrangements were far from ideal. “Large metropolitan universities with very large numbers of students effectively get much greater capacity to cross-subsidise their research,” he said.

“Smaller regional universities don’t get the capacity to do that. We would much prefer a system that supported research excellence and impact based on that research – not student numbers.”

In a fiery exchange, Labor Senator Deborah O’Neill asked Professor Black whether he had “at least a skerrick of concern” for Tasmanian school-leavers faced with a 117 per cent hike in humanities degree fees after “one hell of a year” during the coronavirus pandemic.

“You may have started your studies at Oxford, but in northern Tasmania the dream of access to a university is a very different thing,” Ms O’Neill said.

“I didn’t start in Oxford,” Professor Black replied. “I’m a graduate of five humanities degrees. I care hugely about the humanities.”

john.ross@timeshighereducation.com

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