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Decoding Tony Abbott’s plans for universities

What should universities expect from a Coalition government if Tony Abbott wins the September election? In his address to the Universities Australia conference in Canberra, the signals were fairly reassuring…

The Coalition looks set to only tinker around the edges of higher education policy. AAP Image/Alan Porritt

What should universities expect from a Coalition government if Tony Abbott wins the September election? In his address to the Universities Australia conference in Canberra, the signals were fairly reassuring.

First and most importantly (and to the surprise of some in the room at the time), he gets it.

That is, he gets the traditional idea of a university as an independent community of scholars. He gets that these institutions, animated by inquiry, are engaged in enlightenment projects to build civilised, secure, responsible, dynamic and prosperous societies. He gets too that this means being free, even obliged, to “speak truth to power” (a line quoted in his address) - as Edward Said, echoing Immanuel Kant, once said of the role of scholar-intellectuals.

Abbott also gets the importance of the sector as society’s prime producer of talented leaders and trained professionals. He gets its outstanding performance as an Australian export industry, now bigger than tourism. And he gets the sector’s potential to play a key role in fostering Australia’s regional engagement, as an Asian century nation-building strategy.

Finally, he gets that in recent decades, along with rampant growth, the sector has been surfing successive waves of change in policy, funding, regulation, domestic markets, international markets and technological transformation.

(To see how much change the sector has had in funding and policy settings, check out Figure 1 below.)

Figure 1: Australian university revenue sources and government policy changes. Graph source: Higher Education Base Funding Review 2011. Captions added by the author.

In essence, Australia’s domestic public university system now operates in mixed economy conditions, a world away from fully funded growth under Whitlam in the 1970s. Now also a major export industry, it is increasingly trade-exposed as higher learning develops as a global market. And now like other industries it faces the early stages of a digital revolution. Sophisticated, scalable online study offers prospects that seem at once terrific for the traditional academic mission, and terrifying for the traditional academic business model.

Against this backdrop, a central theme of Abbott’s address was policy stability. Noting the prevailing budget constraints, he promised no substantial new funding. But he also signalled no substantial funding cuts or sudden policy changes.

Implicitly, the Coalition will not take up the Base Funding Review’s call to boost base funding. Nor, implicitly, will it take up the Grattan Institute’s call last year to cut back public subsidies for undergraduate study as a savings measure.

Abbott outlined several themes in the Coalition’s agenda for the sector. There were few specifics. He did not declare, for example, plans to keep or drop the Gillard government’s uncapping of subsidised undergraduate places in 2012.

Nor plans to deregulate domestic undergraduate fees, as called for by the Business Council of Australia at the conference.

Nor plans to lift the Rudd government’s 2009 ban on private full-fee places for domestic undergraduates at public universities, which the Howard government introduced in 1997.

The agenda items were first, to maintain policy stability and allow the sector to digest recent policy changes such as the new uncapped system, and market developments such as the new prominence of online study.

Second, to support the protection of institutional reputations and confidence in the standing of Australian degrees.

Third, to help expand our universities’ share of the international student market.

Fourth, to introduce a new “two-way street” Colombo Plan or Rhodes scholar-type program in Australia’s region (announced last year).

Fifth, to encourage better research performance with (perhaps, for example) longer term research grants.

Sixth, to reduce the regulatory and compliance burden for institutions.

And seventh, to take full advantage of the growth in online study technologies, domestically and internationally.

On the last item Abbott gave enough detail to flag issues familiar to the conference and the wider sector. The Coalition’s view of online learning does not seem to regard it simply as a cost-cutting opportunity for domestic provision. Rather, the focus here is on its potential to add value to campus-based instruction, widen access for Australians, and extend offshore provision.

To explore these possibilities further, Abbott announced a new Coalition working group to be chaired by Alan Tudge. This group will seek submissions from the sector during March, report to shadow ministers by the end of April, and then report to the Opposition leader by mid-June.

Its terms of reference set the scene for the project. In passing they are critical of the Gillard government’s lack of policy focus on promoting online study, citing its absence from the Base Funding Review.

Overall, the sector should be alert to but not alarmed by the prospect of a Coalition government. We should watch this space as the election looms, and keep higher education on the public radar.

Join the conversation

40 Comments sorted by

  1. Dale Bloom

    Analyst

    “He gets that these institutions, animated by inquiry, are engaged in enlightenment projects to build civilised, secure, responsible, dynamic and prosperous societies.”

    Huh?

    I would like to find the university academic who has ever written anything positive about the Australian public.

    I would like to find the university academic who has ever written anything positive about the male gender.

    I would like to find the university academic who has ever placed any priority upon buying anything from Australia before they import.

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  2. Chris Reynolds

    Education Consultant

    Alert but not alarmed. That is certainly not the feeling I get from Abbott's pitch to the universities. Rather, after having had well over two years of this Parliament and longer period before to develop policy, the Opposition Leader now proposes a Mirror solution to his policy free zone. We will look into it. Even then it is to be someone else who develops the policy so whatever advice comes can be "taken on board" rather than adopted. The truth is that the Coalition is playing us and dare I say some of the brightest in our nation currently for mugs. The undertakings have no costings just promises to look into it - the Mirror approach as we refer to it.

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  3. Dania Ng

    Retired factory worker

    The single most important policy measure that a new LNP government can produce to get the university sector back on track is a requirement that individual universities demonstrate they are free speech bastions, which do not muzzle and exclude scholars who challenge leftist ideas and ideologies. The second such measure would be to criminalise activities against free speech, including left/green propaganda and policies regarding 'offensive' speech. The third would be to re-institute academic hierarchy…

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    1. Dale Bloom

      Analyst

      In reply to Dania Ng

      I get the feeling time is up for quite a few in the education system.

      The current Opposition (or soon to be the next Federal Government) will develop a group to report on “How online courses can expand access for people wanting to undertake university study.”

      But in the future, Australian students may not necessarily have to enrol in an Australian university, but can choose from universities all around the world.

      Students in Australia will not be so hamstrung as they have been in the past, and will not be forced to enrol in an Australian university.

      Universities in many countries are notorious for left-wing bias, and if a student feels there is bias being shown, they can quickly communicate this to other students through social media.

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  4. k d

    logged in via Twitter

    In theory universities are entities that allow independent scholars to do their thing.

    Well, I could contribute quite a large amount of value to universities. But I'm not going to for the forseeable future because they're such bureaucratic unwieldly entities that they reject my useful but more-or-les-unique skills.

    Fortunately I get to earn a decent living and operate internationally from my basement without having to worry the abused spouse type employer/employee relationships that many junior (and maybe senior) staff in Australian universities end up in. The bad thing is I was negotiating some work in an Ivy League institution in the USA a little while ago, and it all fell apart due to the same dysfunctional bureaucratic reasons ... Never mind, here's to the rise of the independent scholar!

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  5. Sean Lamb

    Science Denier

    I know one professor who collects a $150,000 salary and just spends all day playing on his blog and producing dud statistics for the mining industry to argue why they should pay less tax.
    Although I am guessing that won't be something that will concern Tony Abbott. But does seem a rather grotesque abuse of his position and his government funded salary.

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    1. Gavin Moodie
      Gavin Moodie is a Friend of The Conversation.

      Adjunct professor at RMIT University

      In reply to Robert Tony Brklje

      I agree that further separating funding for university teaching from university research is worth examining. The chief scientist's contrary proposal needs better justification. Noting the link between university staff appointed to teach and the subjects they research he argues that since he believes Australia should do more research in, say, physics, the Government should encourage students to study physics despite their not being interested in it and despite physics graduates having far lower employment rates than graduates of other disciplines.

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  6. Kim Darcy

    Analyst

    "He gets too that this means being free, even obliged, to “speak truth to power” (a line quoted in his address) – as Edward Said, echoing Immanuel Kant, once said of the role of scholar-intellectuals."
    To decode Abbott's speech, you have taken a wrong turn if you think Abbott was referring to Edward Said, or that Said was 'echoing' Immanuel Kant. Both Abbott and Said were echoing American Cold War pacifists, inspired by the famous Quaker pamphlet, "Speak Truth to Power: A Quaker Search for an Alternative…

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    1. Geoff Sharrock

      Program Director, LH Martin Institute at University of Melbourne

      In reply to Kim Darcy

      Thanks Kim, very interesting! Your sources are new to me, and the connections you suggest make sense.

      However, in my reading the phrase 'speaking truth to power' is an academic context is more commonly associated with Said's 1993 lecture series, Representations of the Intellectual. There he frames the role of a public intellectual as an essentially amateur, outsider role, independent not only of government authority and prevailing policy, but of the orthodox beliefs of one's own 'guild' or professional…

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    1. Dianna Arthur

      Environmentalist

      In reply to Jack Arnold

      Given this paragraph in Geoff's article, I think you have raised some pertinent comments:

      "Noting the prevailing budget constraints, he promised no substantial new funding. But he also signalled no substantial funding cuts or sudden policy changes."

      The best that can be hoped for is that any future Abbott government will not really do much at all - keeping tertiary institutions a little bit edgy, which may be a good business strategy but is at cross purposes to the ideal of tertiary education…

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    2. Geoff Sharrock

      Program Director, LH Martin Institute at University of Melbourne

      In reply to Jack Arnold

      The disclosure statement on potential conflicts of interest here is the author's own formulation. It is not an editorial comment on the character of the article, or its author. Readers of my Conversation piece in December, on a different topic, will find the same disclosure statement.

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  8. Andrew Norton

    Program Director, Higher Education at Grattan Institute

    Geoff - While there was no long-term commitment to uncapping places, I took the passage below as indicating that it would remain for a while at least:
    "A period of relative policy stability in which changes already made can be digested and adjusted to (such as the move to demand-driven funding) is probably what our universities most need now."
    Andrew

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  9. Gavin Moodie
    Gavin Moodie is a Friend of The Conversation.

    Adjunct professor at RMIT University

    This article should have made 2 additional points about Abbott's position on online learning. First, establishing a Coalition working group on online higher education seems inconsistent with Abbott's statements earlier in his speech -

    'In an era of busy government and constant change, it’s insufficiently recognised how often masterly inactivity can be the best contribution that government can make to a particular sector. A period of relative policy stability in which changes already made can…

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    1. Andrew Norton

      Program Director, Higher Education at Grattan Institute

      In reply to Gavin Moodie

      The Coalition plan as I understand is to wire up every street but use existing phone networks to each house.

      But most online ed can be done at existing speeds. I had to do a presentation last year on the NBN and online education. There are a few HD applications that won't work for current home users, but there are no major technological obstacles to much greater use of online and any of the scenarios: the current system, the Coalition plan, or the full to-the-home NBN.

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    2. k d

      logged in via Twitter

      In reply to Andrew Norton

      I think you're making an assumption here that there's only one user at a time doing anything significant on the household net connection. I can tell you, with my not too bad ADSL connection, when I'm working with remote computers on a VPN (low bandwidth intensity), my daughter is watching a video (high intensity) and my wife and sone are doing some other medium intensity activity, my connection becomes difficult to use. Part of that is the A - asynchronousness of the ADSL connection, where upload and download speeds are dependent on each other - i.e. do a lot of uploading, and the download speed decreases correspondingly and vice-versa.

      So yeah, given a very constrained usage scenario you're right. But given the increasing importance of network connections in daily life, and multiuser scenarios, the whole thing becomes pretty clunky pretty quickly.

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    3. Lorraine Muller

      PhD - eternal student

      In reply to Gavin Moodie

      Online courses immediately cut out rural and remote students, students with low incomes, and some who just live in the wrong spot to get decent internet connection.

      This move to online is simply a move to ensure that education remains the domain of the wealthy inner city folk - too bad for the rest of Australia.

      Courses are run cheaply, with no printing costs - that is passed onto the student, and generally marked by some lowly paid post grad student. Many courses are not updated regularly. Online courses are cost cutting measures that will end up with a dumbing down of university education.

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    4. Lorraine Muller

      PhD - eternal student

      In reply to Gavin Moodie

      My extensive experience with distance ed - that is now shifting to online - is that each year the student gets less for their money. They get less course material, less lecturer contact/time, less feedback on assignments. Of course if they dare to use a phone in an attempt to contact a lecturer for clarification they very rarely get a response.

      Lets face it. On campus students get chairs to sit on, air-conditioned lecture rooms, access to computers including broadband, library, grass mowed, toilet…

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    5. Jack Arnold

      Polymath

      In reply to Lorraine Muller

      HI Lorraine I have had the same experience also. However, the ANU Legal Workshop demonstrated just how effectively on-line course delivery could be, even in an Internet backwater like Moree, where there is dead level country, hardly any signal 2km from the Moree tower and the mandatory Notional Party political representation to ensure a 19th century future.

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    6. Geoff Sharrock

      Program Director, LH Martin Institute at University of Melbourne

      In reply to Gavin Moodie

      Good points Gavin.

      I took the line 'a host of challenges that have nothing to do with government' to mean that whatever the policy and public funding settings, there are external developments in the global higher learning market that affect the Australian sector, and that universities need to (and are) adapting to this at an institutional level, rather than wait for the roll out of a centrally designed government program.

      On your point about the NBN, I haven't followed it closely and I'd have…

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  10. Alex Reisner

    retiree

    Is "masterly inactivity" a euphemism for that other euphemism -- "benign neglect"?

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  11. Peter Ormonde
    Peter Ormonde is a Friend of The Conversation.

    Farmer

    Are these "core" or "non-core" suggestions of a policy?

    Did he write them down somewhere or were they just negotiable words - not any absolute truth or commitment?

    And did he address the Big Issue: will he re-institute the immigration rort that saw our tertiary sector export earnings skyrocket under Howard?

    Trust and belief ... hardly a solid bedrock for analysisng something sounding like a policy for now sort of thing.

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    1. Gavin Moodie
      Gavin Moodie is a Friend of The Conversation.

      Adjunct professor at RMIT University

      In reply to Peter Ormonde

      I would be very surprised indeed in the Coalition restored the link between education and migration. It fostered numerous problems, one of which is still with us. There are tens of thousands of international graduates who haven't qualified for permanent residence and are staying in Australia on extensions of their post study work rights. Something will have to be done when those start to expire. That will be a difficult enough problem without adding to it by restoring the link between education and migration.

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    2. Peter Ormonde
      Peter Ormonde is a Friend of The Conversation.

      Farmer

      In reply to Gavin Moodie

      More than surprised Gavin - appalled.

      But you would be surprised (perhaps even appalled) to see how many august academic institutions have been agitating quietly for precisely this remedy for their funding woes. It's cheap, easy and off-budget ... makes our unis look like they're paying their way. Ticks all the boxes.

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  12. Lorraine Muller

    PhD - eternal student

    Queensland's Campbell Newman and his LNP govt should be enough for people to take what Abbott says with a grain of salt.

    Newman lied outrageously to get into govt and then immediately set about making huge cuts and mass sackings. Abbott openly agrees with and admires Newman.

    I think history shows us what Abbott will be like if he ever gains govt - it will be cuts to the public sector and even greater subsidies to the wealthy.

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  13. william hollingsworth

    student flinders university

    Wow does Geoff Sharrock get a front row seat at Liberal Party rallies or does he just mop Tony Abbott's brow?
    Guess we won't see him rocking too many boats.

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  14. R. Ambrose Raven

    none

    "Our" tertiary education system deserves little respect.

    Only in recent years has it become very obvious that foreign-student-funding of tertiary education requires the prostitution of Australian citizenship, that it encourages the exploitation of foreign students both as foreigners and students, and that that tertiary institution services are deteriorating anyway.

    Destroying the three-tier system – universities teaching intellectually-oriented disciplines and professions, CAEs (Colleges…

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  15. Sean Lamb

    Science Denier

    As an example, let us look at the day of Professor Sponger from one of Melbourne's universities.

    He arrives at the office and checks his email. At 08:56 he makes his first blog post detailing some work a mining consultancy has sent him an email about
    http://catallaxyfiles.com/2013/03/04/state-of-the-budget/#comments

    He then commences to read the Fairfax and the Australian
    By 09:50 he has written another post responding to something he the SMH
    http://catallaxyfiles.com/2013/03/04/fact-checking-the-tax-free-threshold-ii-lying-again

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    1. Chris Reynolds

      Education Consultant

      In reply to Sean Lamb

      Sean. How did I know you were going to say "waddles off". The choice of verb says it all!

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    2. Sean Lamb

      Science Denier

      In reply to Chris Reynolds

      Dunno, Chris.

      When I go to work I don't spend all day running a blog - admittedly I get paid a lot less than the Professor.
      Playing on a blog is fun, but he should do it on his own dime and time.

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    3. Chris Reynolds

      Education Consultant

      In reply to Sean Lamb

      My point is that I don't think you know much about how hard most academics work. I know several and they would not find your pastiche at all entertaining.

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    4. k d

      logged in via Twitter

      In reply to Chris Reynolds

      Yes, there may be a few slackers in the system, but for the most part being an academic these days largely involves horrible hours, thankless and mundane work, a near-total absence of career path for juniors, and absolutely toxic politics for seniors.

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    5. Sean Lamb

      Science Denier

      In reply to Chris Reynolds

      "My point is that I don't think you know much about how hard most academics work. I know several and they would not find your pastiche at all entertaining"
      No that wasn't your point at all. You are now raising this point for the first time. To which I respond:
      1. Clearly this particular academic is working particularly hard as most days he seems to spend a considerable portion of his time on his blog - and his blog is frequently economically illiterate. For example in the instance I point to…

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