AUSTRALIA'S academics have attacked a government report on higher education's future, describing it as shallow, doctrinaire and based on unfounded assumptions.
In the first shot of what is certain to be a fierce battle this year over the West report, the National Tertiary Education Union rejected its market-based vision.
In a formal response the union, which represents more than 25,000 university staff, slammed proposals for vouchers and fees, deregulation and privatisation.
NTEU president Carolyn Allport said staff were disappointed. The report claimed that higher education was in crisis but did not acknowledge that this had been deliberately "caused by funding cuts and the short-sighted deregulatory policies" of the federal government itself.
The West committee, chaired by former private school headmaster Roderick West, was set up a year ago to advise the government on policy-making for the next ten to 20 years. A preliminary report released in November drew fire from academics and students.
It said that Australians should be entitled to five years of post-secondary education, paid for by public funds but with significant student contributions. It proposed a transition to demand-driven higher education, that is, full competition between institutions.
Although the report purported to provide a range of funding options, Dr Allport said it only presented one. "This option is a voucher system, accompanied by unlimited upfront tuition fees. Most Australian students and their families would be unable to afford the astronomically high fees that would be allowed under the West proposal," she said.
"It is ridiculous to assert, as the committee has, that an environment of unregulated tuition fees will create opportunities for students - all it will do is shut people out of universities, especially the high-status institutions."
In its submission, the union notes that university applications had dropped since tuition fees rose under the government's restructuring of the Higher Education Contribution Scheme.
Despite the fact that HECS is a deferred payment scheme, the union says students are being deterred by charges ranging from Aus$3,500 to Aus$5,500 (Pounds 1,356-Pounds 2,131) a year. A 13 per cent fall in applications from non-school leavers this year, on top of a 10 per cent decline in 1997, showed that something was seriously wrong, the union says.
In New South Wales, applications for university places had fallen by more than 8 per cent this year.
Dr Allport said the West report added nothing to the debate. "It should be consigned to the rubbish bin of history, so that those with a stake in Australia's future can get on with sensible and well-founded discussion of the real issues."