Australian vice chancellors are struggling to maintain a common front against threatened cuts in higher education spending.
Despite a plea for unity by Fay Gale, president of their national committee, individual vice chancellors and other university leaders have had talks with education minister Amanda Vanstone and suggested where the axe might fall.
Vice chancellors from Victoria proposed in talks last week the reintroduction of tuition fees and a one-off allocation of Commonwealth money for staffing as a way of avoiding cuts in operating grants.
The suggestion, aimed at protecting their institutions, pre-empts any collective decision by the Australian Committee of Vice Chancellors. Senator Vanstone, at a press conference later, looked pleased by the apparent break in the ranks of her opponents. She praised the Victorians for their suggestions and called on other states to follow suit and "join in the debate about the shape of higher education".
The Victorians argued that cuts damage could be avoided by modifying regulatory controls over universities to permit greater flexibility in generating income. Possible revenue sources included raising the charge of the Higher Education Contributions Scheme (HECS), which could involve incentives for early payment, and tuition fees.
Any fees would be payable to the university and this would have the advantage of encouraging competition between institutions, the vice chancellors said.
Unions representing academics and students, which had recently joined with the AVCC and other lobby groups in an alliance to oppose any cuts, were outraged.
Both the National Tertiary Education Union and the National Union of Students attacked the plans. Students claimed that if the proposals were adopted higher education would again become "a haven for the children of the wealthy elite".
The situation became confused when two of the Victorian v-cs later released statements also condemning the plans. Michael Osborne, vice chancellor of La Trobe University, said his university supported neither upfront fees nor higher HECS charges .
Jarlath Ronayne, vice chancellor of the Victoria University of Technology, said fees would discriminate unfairly. His university's unique role in providing access to students from disadvantaged backgrounds would be compromised.