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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.