Title bout, but Oz academy has bigger fights ahead

Ministerial 'bungle' distracts attention from sector's major problems. Simon Baker writes

September 23, 2010

University leaders in Australia are attempting to move on from a row with the new Labor government that has hindered efforts to pressure politicians into tackling the urgent problems facing the country's academy.

The minority administration - led by Prime Minister Julia Gillard - initially failed to include any reference to the sector in its new ministerial titles.

Glenn Withers, chief executive of Universities Australia, said the omission had prompted one observer in the academy to ask: "Dude, where's my minister?"

Labor, which had only been in power a matter of days, relented hours before the ministers were sworn in by adding "tertiary education" to senator Chris Evans' title: his remit also covers jobs, skills and workplace relations.

The row threatened to distract from a number of serious issues facing the sector, top of the list being a collapsing market for international students that could dry up a core income stream for universities.

Dr Withers said the Australian academy had been left "puzzled, disappointed and mystified" by the government's initial failure to formally recognise higher education.

However, he added that many were pleased that greater attention was being paid to education in Ms Gillard's reshuffle: two other ministers are accountable for schools and science, although responsibility for research and undergraduates has been split.

He said Labor, which had offered "little new" for universities in its election campaign, must now turn its attention to a bulging in tray of short- and long-term issues facing the sector.

"Restoring confidence that Australia offers a welcoming environment for international students is the top immediate priority," he said, referring to the dramatic decline in applications for student visas from countries such as India.

Dr Withers said the successful implementation of the country's regulatory regime under the newly created Tertiary Education Quality and Standards Agency was another priority.

The sector is also facing a potential crisis over teaching funding as the government moves towards an uncapped system of university places for domestic students.

Steven Schwartz, vice-chancellor of Macquarie University, said the row over ministers' titles must not detract from scrutiny of Labor's policy decisions.

"What matters in all of this, of course, is neither the titles of ministers nor the spread of portfolios," he said. "What matters is action - what the government does to support and encourage universities as we move into what may be an era of uncertainty for higher education in Australia."

Professor Schwartz said the controversy over ministerial titles - and the decision to lump together higher education with skills - highlighted "widespread dismay" with the trend to "focus on skills to the detriment of education".

"Modern university courses such as property development, leisure studies and golf-course management are designed to impart valuable skills to students who wish to pursue relevant careers. But the skills imparted in these courses are no substitute for a broader education," he argued.

Bungle or blind populism?

Simon Marginson, professor of higher education at the University of Melbourne's Centre for the Study of Higher Education, said it was still unclear whether Labor's initial portfolio decision was a "bungle or misguided populism".

He added it was important not to "overdramatise" the row, but warned that the academy was already distrustful of mainstream politicians' contemporary attitudes towards universities.

"The sector was already aggrieved and suspicious of being neglected by the state, with good reason: the government denies the existence of obvious policy problems such as the collapsing international market," he said.

"Both parties said very little about universities during the election campaign."

Professor Marginson said that most university vice-chancellors would have been relieved "by some margin" that the Liberal-National coalition lost to Labor in the fight to win the support of independent MPs following an indecisive federal election.

According to Dr Withers, the coalition did have some "very positive" policies such as new funding for research collaboration, but had also planned to cut money for widening-participation programmes.

He said that in contrast, Labor was the "known quantity", although he added that both sides had let the sector down by focusing on immigration during their campaign, helping to strengthen negative signals to prospective international students.

"Both major parties worried universities during the election campaign by asserting a need to reduce migration and implying that this could be accomplished by reducing international-student numbers. This resort to populism was strongly condemned," he said.

simon.baker@tsleducation.com.

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