AUSTRALIA. THE AUSTRALIAN government has rejected key proposals put forward by a committee it established to advise on the future of the nation's higher education system even before the committee's preliminary report was officially released.
Alarmed by the likely electoral consequences of one of the proposals - the introduction of a student voucher system - the government of prime minister John Howard announced the day before the report's release that this would not be accepted.
A further suggestion to extend Australia's Higher Education Contribution Scheme to students attending post-secondary technical colleges was also killed off.
The West committee was set up in January by former education minister Amanda Vanstone. It was charged with advising the government on the financial and policy directions of higher education over the next two decades.
The committee is chaired by Roderick West, a former classics teacher who has never worked in a university and who was formerly head of an elite private boys' school in Sydney.
However, his committee produced a 500-page preliminary report which, despite the government's initial reaction, could still lead to a radical reshaping of Australia's university and vocational education sectors.
Staff and student organisations immediately condemned the report, saying its proposals would inevitably mean that students would pay more, that the demand-driven model would leave universities with no basis for planning year by year, and that there were no incentives for staff to perform better, only to compete harder with each other.
David Phillips, a former senior federal bureaucrat and head of the government's higher education division, said the report had handed the government "a public relations grenade with the pin taken out".
The Australian Vice Chancellors' Committee, however, cautiously welcomed the document as "a thoughtful treatment of long-term issues", but warned that the committee could be putting too much faith in market-driven solutions to the challenges facing the sector.
The report, Learning for Life, sets out a range of proposals canvassing a new financing framework for universities, the need for more flexibility in university operations, changes to research funding and organisation, and development of a system that is "studentcentred".
Its findings come after eight months of consultation with all universities, student and staff groups, governments, employers and overseas higher education agencies, and almost 400 submissions. A final statement setting out the committee's conclusions and detailed recommendations is due next March.
Speaking after the report's release, Mr West said his committee's preferred option for funding universities was through a learning account, to which every young Australian would beentitled.
This would lead to a transformation of student-staff relationships for the better and the focus would principally be on excellent teaching, he said.
"The idea is that at the end of school every student will have a learning account. This will be a birthright, a place in the sun for all Australians. My committee will not move from that vision," Mr West said.
Although a self-confessed ignoramus as far as computers are concerned - he still refers quaintly to "cyclostyled notes" when apparently talking about photocopies - Mr West nevertheless believes that new information and communication technology will lead to more substantial changes, including the possibility of universities "servicing global markets in specialised areas".
A significant public contribution towards postsecondary education was the best and most important investment the community could make in its future, he said.
"If we are to continue as a prosperous and civilised nation, learning must be at the core of our national life. Higher education institutions have a responsibility to foster a culture of lifetime learning in our community."
The West report says that students from poorer families continue to be under-represented in Australian higher education, as are those from rural and isolated areas.
Any future policy framework should provide targeted support for these groups, including assistance to improve outcomes for indigenous students.
"No student undertaking a first qualification should be required to face upfront payment of tuition fees," the report says. "Family resources and the inability to access finance on a commercial basis should not create barriers to access to post-secondary education."
To provide universal access, the government should introduce a income-contingent loan system similar to HECS. This would mean that all first-time students could defer payment of tuition fees until they graduate and begin working.
But critics claimed that giving universities the freedom to charge whatever fees they like, along with a new loan scheme, would result in students facing a huge increase in costs and a marked rise in the debts they would incur.
Academics also attacked the report's comments on teaching and research, saying the committee had drawn a false dichotomy between the two. National Tertiary Education Union president Carolyn Allport said a quality system required a balance between the generation and dissemination of knowledge.
COMMITTEE URGES DEREGULATION
The six-member West committee was set up by the Howard government in January to conduct a Dearing-style inquiry into the future of Australia's higher education system over the next 20 years. Sir David Williams, former Cambridge University vice chancellor, was a consultant. West's main recommendations include:
* Higher education should be deregulated, with both public and private universities able to get government grants and set their own tuition charges
* Public funding of universities should be determined by the number of students an institution attracts, and follow students via a voucher or scholarship system
* All Australians should have access to five years of post-secondary education, possibly through a "learning bank" system
* Teaching should be rated more highly than research, with "gifted" teachers rewarded through "enhanced conditions"
* Consideration should be given to establishing a centre for the promotion of university teaching and the development of teacher training for academics, similar to that proposed by Dearing
* Higher education and vocational education and training should not be treated as distinct entities but should be part of a "post-secondary education continuum - a seamless system"