West report kindles critics' fire

May 1, 1998

PROPOSALS for a "student centred" method of funding Australia's universities and criticisms of current practices have raised an outcry among academics, students, postgraduates, vice-chancellors and even politicians.

The West committee's report, Learning for Life, a 200-page package of political and educational dynamite, cost almost Pounds 1 million, took 16 months to write, and has attracted near universal condemnation for its radical recommendations.

It was written by a committee charged by the conservative government last year with reviewing higher education financing and policy. The report's 38 recommendations, if adopted, would cause a fundamental shakeup of post-secondary education.

But federal education minister David Kemp immediately distanced the government from the report's plan to provide Australians with a guaranteed "learning entitlement" to post-secondary education and to allow institutions to charge whatever top-up fees they liked.

Dr Kemp said the government would not introduce student "vouchers" and would not lift the limits on the fees charges nor the proportion of fee-paying local students a university can admit.

He also rejected the report's recommendation that students enrolled in both higher education and technical and further education should have access to deferred-payment loans covering the cost of tuition.

While Dr Kemp praised the report's general line of demanding that universities be more responsive to students, others were far more critical.

The National Tertiary Education Union condemned the report and said it lacked any solutions to the many problems facing higher education.

"The West report is potentially the most radical and regressive set of reforms ever to threaten Australia's universities," declared NTEU president Carolyn Allport. "The complete reliance on market forces to shape the education system is simply unacceptable and irresponsible. If implemented this would constitute the greatest ever abrogation of government responsibility for education."

The National Union of Students also attacked the report saying its market-based reforms would reduce student choice. Universities with more perceived prestige would exploit their market power by raising fees beyond the reach of ordinary students, said NUS president Rose Tracey.

"The committee's mis-named 'student-centred' funding model will increase choice for a minority of wealthy students at the expense of the vast majority of ordinary students and their families," Ms Tracey said.

Vice-chancellors expressed other fears. The president of the Australian Vice-Chancellors Committee, John Niland, said that without a plan for increasing both public and private investment in higher education, the vision outlined in the report would not materialise.

"Otherwise, the benefits claimed from making universities more responsive to student demand and national research priorities are sure to be illusory," Professor Niland said.

Committee chair Rod West no doubt realised the storm his report would unleash. In his foreword, he quoted a former French minister for education, who observed that "everyone judges reform to be indispensable and everyone judges it to be impossible".

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