University of Melbourne and LH Martin Institute’s Geoff Sharrock is reporting for The Conversation from the Universities Australia Higher Education Conference in Canberra. Federal education minister Christopher Pyne addressed the conference last night.
In his first major address as education minister to university leaders, Christopher Pyne presented a mix of good news, bad news and no news on future funding and policy settings for the higher education sector.
The good news
The good news was that the government would be consistent in following its pre-election commitments with the aim of making “a good university system even better”.
Pyne highlighted some of the practical steps the government has taken in line with this agenda (which the sector has welcomed). These include: removing the previous government’s proposed cap on tax detectability for self-education expenses (which aimed to save A$520 million as part of a larger package of spending cuts); launching the New Colombo Plan to offer Australian undergraduates offshore study and work experience in the Asia-Pacific region; and improving the international student visa regime as a first response to last February’s Chaney report.
Pyne applauded the sector’s entrepreneurial success in international education, with its economic and engagement benefits. And he talked up the potential for innovation in teaching and learning. This applied particularly to the online study space, he noted:
Part of the reason for emphasising the importance of institutional freedom is that universities must be free to innovate… It may be that this is nowhere more important than in the emergence of online education… I am optimistic about your ability to take advantage of online opportunities because I have seen how you have seized the opportunities of international education when freed to do so
However, the speech made no reference to the Online Higher Education Working Group chaired by MP Alan Tudge. Abbott announced the working group to the conference this time last year.
The theme of “freeing up” the sector loomed largest. The minister reminded us that he had accepted the recommendations of two reviews targeting high compliance costs for universities, the Lee Dow-Braithwaite Review of Higher Education Regulation and the PhillipsKPA Review of University Reporting Requirements.
The aim here will be to provide a “stronger, simpler, more streamlined approach to reporting and regulation”. Pyne confirmed that a soon-to-be-established TEQSA advisory council would advise on how to “ensure the minimum regulatory intervention consistent with accountability for quality”.
These policy moves are in line with the government’s wider deregulatory agenda. The minister said:
We are determined to remove the dead hand of excessive reporting and regulation that stifles universities’ productivity and capacity to innovate.
Many in the sector will welcome this undertaking.
The bad news
The bad news is that Pyne’s address confirms what most expected: the government will not reverse the other spending cuts proposed by the Gillard government last April (which amounted to $2.3 billion). As Pyne put it:
Given the diabolical fiscal challenge before us, there has been no realistic alternative but to proceed with the other savings measures announced by the previous government.
The no news
The no news part of the address was that there are no big new programs or initiatives, rather small steps taken and planned steps to come. For example, the minister signalled a fuller response to the Chaney report delivered to Labor Minister Chris Bowen in February 2013, by establishing a co-ordinating council to “develop a comprehensive strategy for Australian international education” in consultation with the sector.
As we know, Pyne recently received a report reviewing the “uncapped” demand-driven system (introduced by the Gillard government in 2012). The review’s terms of reference focus on quality among other things, but includes advice on whether the system is “fiscally sustainable”. Giving few hints as to its content or his response, he said:
The government will consider the Kemp-Norton report in the lead-up to the budget alongside the report of the Commission of Audit.
To speculate, it would be surprising if the government moved to “recap” the supply of publicly subsidised places, since an “uncapped” system fits the vision of a newly freed sector so well. As the minister said:
The demand-driven system has afforded universities a measure of freedom to run their affairs unprecedented in recent history, and allowed universities increasingly to determine their own strategic directions and priorities. I am delighted that universities have responded to this freedom with imagination and energy.
However, the speech also pointed out that in 2014 the cost to government of supporting domestic higher education students will exceed $12 billion. This may be enough to put it on the radar in what promises to be a tough May budget. And while we have not seen the demand-driven review report, readers of Andrew Norton’s 2012 Graduate Winners report will find a detailed blueprint for shifting more of the cost of study onto students, with HELP loans muting the impact.
Several reviews and reports on different aspects of higher education are now available to the government. Any of these could lead to policy or funding shifts. As yet, there is no sign of dramatic change, or of a comprehensive new policy architecture for the sector.
Wait for the May budget and watch this space…