West said to ignore big issues

February 20, 1998

Business leaders and vice chancellors in Australia have delivered a scathing response to a report on the financial and policy directions of the nation's higher education system over the next two decades.

Ashley Goldsworthy, executive director of the Business Higher Education Round Table of corporate and university chief executives, said the West report should have started robust debate about the shape of Australia's university system. Unfortunately, its "one-dimensional view aborts such a debate before it has even begun".

Professor Goldsworthy said the report lacked rigour in argument as well as evidence to support its arguments; it carried unsubstantiated assertions, displayed little understanding of the role of the university sector and failed to appreciate "the critical nexus between teaching, learning and research".

The paper ignored the bigger issues at stake and focused attention on a confusion of detail, he said. The broad impact of the university on the community outside was ignored and the report appeared to view universities as an extension of the secondary school.

"This paper lacks the depth of analysis of the Dearing report in Britain and consequently is often unconvincing in its arguments," Professor Goldsworthy said.

The West committee was established more than a year ago by former education minister Amanda Vanstone. Chaired by Roderick West, a former teacher of classics, its final report is due next month.

The Round Table response echoes those of other critics. Last month, the National Tertiary Education Union strongly rejected what it said was the report's market-based vision for higher education.

NTEU president Carolyn Allport said the report added nothing to the debate about the future of higher education in Australia and "should be consigned to the rubbish bin of history".

While not going quite so far, the Round Table paper said a significant increase in funding for universities was needed and government support would have to comprise part of this. It said there was a strong argument for government subsidy of higher education on grounds of access and equity as well as national and community interest.

Commenting on West's call for a change in the focus of funding from the university to the student (presumably via a system of vouchers), the Round Table says the report fails to demonstrate how this would be more cost-effective or how the present system was failing.

Increases this year in the charges imposed on students under the Higher Education Contribution Scheme meant that their fees were already among the highest in the world. West's proposals would increase the ratio of private to government funding.

Adoption of the West recommendations would also result in the creation of "a new binary system" of teaching-only universities and research universities, the Round Table said. This would not produce a viable university system for the 21st century.

"The paper raises on its first page the issue of low staff morale, yet there is no attempt to suggest how this might be raised or what steps need to be taken to ensure high quality academic and support staff will be retained or attracted," it said.

Professor Goldsworthy said: "The West paper leaves a lot to be desired in setting out an appropriate policy framework. It has failed in its task."

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