There has been much speculation over the past few weeks that the government plans to deregulate university fees, or remove the caps on what universities can charge students. In a speech today at Monash University, Education Minister Christopher Pyne gave his strongest signal yet that a major shake-up of the sector is imminent. Here is his speech in full:
It is a great pleasure to be with you today to launch the Australian National Fabrication Facility’s Diamond Deposition Suite.
This new facility will allow researchers here at Monash University, other researchers represented here, and researchers across Australia to continue their important work, and I’m delighted to be a part of that.
I should acknowledge that Professor Byrne will be leaving Australia soon to serve as Principal and President of King’s College London. This appointment certainly shows the outstanding qualities that we all know Ed has.
Professor Byrne, my sincerest congratulations on this prestigious appointment.
National Collaborative Research Infrastructure Strategy (NCRIS)
Launching this facility, I am more impressed than ever by the achievements of our researchers and what they have done for Australia.
This facility is one of 27 such facilities funded under the National Collaborative Research Infrastructure Strategy. Across Australia, 222 research institutions use these facilities.
Since 2004, the Australian government has invested more than $2.5 billion in research infrastructure. This investment has attracted more than $1 billion in contributions from universities, other governments and industry.
This investment supports scientists and researchers to develop tools to solve Australia’s and the world’s most pressing problems. These problems range from making organ transplants work to increasing the world’s food supply.
The Australian National Fabrication Facility
The Diamond Deposition Suite is the most advanced facility of its kind in Australia.
The facility grows diamonds. But this is not about making expensive jewellery. The diamonds grown here are compressed into films about half the width of a human hair, to manufacture devices that will restore sight to the blind.
My understanding is that a tiny seed diamond - 10 nanometres in diameter - is combined with carbon atoms to grow a layer of diamond, to a desired shape or size. These layers can then be used as windows in optical devices that can be implanted in the human eye.
Innovations such as these are something we could only dream about not long ago. And it is in no small part thanks to Australian researchers that they are now possible.
The Australian government has provided more than $113 million to the Australian National Fabrication Facility and this is money well spent. This investment opens up opportunities for the facility to engage in the multi-billion-dollar international medical bionic implants industry with potential benefits to Australia that will more than pay for the government’s investment.
You should be extremely proud of the work you do and excited about what the future holds.
Why education and research are important
As well as believing in the crucial importance of research, this government believes in opening up opportunities for all Australians to prosper.
We all know that it is vitally important for every Australian student to get the best education they can - no matter where they come from and what their parents do. A good education almost always leads to a good job, earning good money and being able to provide for yourself and your family over your lifetime.
Australian university graduates on average earn up to 75% more than those who do not go on to higher education after secondary school. Over their lifetime graduates may earn around a million dollars more than if they had not gone to university.
University graduates are less likely to be unemployed; they live longer and have better health.
The jobs of the future will need workers who can use new technology and develop new ideas like we see demonstrated here today. But we are at risk of losing these future jobs to overseas countries if we do not educate our young people so that they can compete for jobs with people from those countries.
Australia has a long-standing reputation for producing world-class research especially in fields such as medicine, biology, water management and mining. This research helps our successful businesses grow and increase their earnings and boosts Australia’s overseas exports.
For these reasons the government is determined to support more young Australians to get a good education and contribute to our society and the economy though their skills and research.
The Budget challenge
Australia has a good higher education and research system. The government deeply values the various roles that all our universities play. This includes preparing Australians for the professions such as engineering, medicine and law; training teachers, nurses and administrators; and opening up new possibilities to students across Australia from the inner cities, outer metropolitan areas and regions. The role of our universities in creating opportunity for students is something we deeply value.
But our higher education system needs to be - and it could be - so much better.
In framing the forthcoming federal budget for higher education and research, the government faces five significant challenges:
The first is that we must repair the national budget, given the unsustainable budget deficits and ballooning debt that we have been left by the previous government.
Second, Australia’s higher education and research systems are at risk of being left behind and overtaken by the growing university systems in our region.
Thirdly, growth in the number of higher education students as a result of the introduction of demand-driven bachelor degree places is driving up the cost of higher education to the taxpayer. But there are compelling reasons to expand the demand-driven system to support more students – spreading opportunity further for students.
Fourth, the previous government also left us with funding cliffs for essential research programs.
Fifth, we must meet all those challenges in ways that are fair and reasonable both to students and to taxpayers.
The forthcoming budget will respond to all of these challenges through a fair and balanced higher education and research reform package.
The budget announcements in relation to higher education and research will take account of extensive national discussion and consultation on these issues.
This includes the review of the demand-driven system by former Monash professor and education minister Dr David Kemp and Andrew Norton, which received over 80 submissions.
It also includes the findings of the Commission of Audit, which received more than 20 submissions from universities and their peak bodies.
It also includes the extensive debate in this country over many years about the kinds of reforms that are necessary both to expand opportunity for students and to ensure that Australia isn’t left behind in international competition.
Growth in higher education
We’ve seen huge growth in the number of students attending university. Domestic undergraduate students grew by 30% in the ten years from 2003 to 2012. This includes growth of more than 15% in just three years during the introduction of the demand-driven higher education system resulting from the Bradley review.
This growth in university participation is good for Australia but I can’t deny that it is putting a strain on our ability to afford to support so many students.
As the number of students keeps growing, the cost to taxpayers rises with it. Currently taxpayers pay $6 for every $4 that students pay.
Students do not make their contribution to the costs until they are earning a decent living. There has been considerable public discussion over the past few years about how much graduates should pay given the large personal benefit they receive from higher education.
Research funding cliffs
When I talk about funding cliffs for research programs I’m referring to the fact that the previous government did not set aside a single dollar for the National Collaborative Research Infrastructure Strategy beyond June 30 next year.
There is a similar situation for the Future Fellowships program that supports mid-career researchers to undertake world-class research in Australia. There is no provision for any new awards to be made from 2015 onwards.
I know we have Future Fellow recipients here today. You and your colleagues here and across Australia have rightly raised your concerns about these funding cliffs. I can assure you that the government has been listening to your concerns.
Risk of being left behind
I share Universities Australia’s concerns expressed in their campaign Keep it Clever - that Australia’s higher education system is at risk of being left behind.
In the last five years one Australian university has entered the top 200 universities in the Academic Ranking of World Universities, joining six Australian universities already there. Five years ago there were no Chinese universities in this top 200; today there are five. Chinese universities are gaining in international standing at a rapid pace, and ours are not.
We must aspire to not only keep up with our competitors, but to keep ahead of them.
I want Australia to have the best higher education system in the world.
What would the best higher education system in the world look like?
This is a serious ambition and we should ask ourselves what the best higher education system in the world would look like and how we could get there.
There has been much thought and discussion on these issues in Australia and overseas. I hope there will be much more.
In a recent article Ross Williams and his colleagues stressed the importance of autonomy and resources for a quality higher education system.
Similarly the World Bank has identified features of a world-class higher education institution including a high concentration of talent, resources from diverse sources and governance arrangements where institutions can make decisions and manage resources without being encumbered by unnecessary bureaucracy. They found that such governance arrangements encourage strategic vision, innovation and flexibility.
My own view has been informed by these sources and the discussions I’ve been having across Australia and elsewhere both before and since I became Minister for Education.
For me, the best higher education system would provide more opportunities for students from all backgrounds to choose the course and the type of higher education provider that is right for them. There would be a wide diversity of good choices for students.
In this system higher education would be affordable for students, with no upfront costs, and costs would be shared fairly between students and taxpayers.
The system would provide world-class teaching and research with some of our universities being among the very best in the world. All higher education institutions would be pursuing their particular goals as well as they possibly could.
Students could choose to study where and what they want and universities and higher education colleges would have the freedom to provide the very best education in the world to meet the needs of their students.
Government’s role would be to help students and promote research, uphold the quality of the system without unnecessary red tape and make sure the taxpayer’s contribution to the cost is well spent.
More opportunities for students from all backgrounds
The most important part of my vision for the world’s best higher education system is that it gives students what they need.
More competition between higher education providers would be good for students.
If universities and colleges were able to compete on price, it would mean they must have a greater focus on meeting the needs of students. They would need to continuously improve the teaching and learning they offer to attract students.
They would need to recognise that not all students are the same and they have different needs and interests. But students all want a good educational experience, the best teachers and the best preparation for a good job now and in the future.
Achieving this would require government to change the way it treats universities and colleges, and to give them more freedom to do what they do best – which I’ll say more about in a minute.
Universities and colleges playing to their strengths would be good for students.
I couldn’t put it better than Ed Byrne, who has said:
It’s just unsustainable to have a system where every university aspires to do exactly the same thing as the next one … there’s so much opportunity to improve our excellence by letting each institution play to its strengths – being the best regional university, being a superb technical university, being a great research-intensive university, and so on.
I would add that some universities would excel at opening up access to their local population base while others would become national or international centres for excellence in particular fields.
We should take account of the advice from Kemp and Norton that pathway courses are the best option for some students. They pointed out that pathway programs with a qualification offered by universities and non-university higher education providers are excluded from the demand-driven higher education system. This means the number of university diploma courses is tightly controlled and that students who have chosen to study for a degree or a higher education diploma with a private college or through TAFE are not supported by the government.
These arrangements encourage students to enter bachelor degree programs when they may be better suited to a diploma program. Pathway courses suit many students who are less well prepared to attend university and they also prepare students for jobs where there is growing demand. The government could do more to ensure that students can study what they choose and where they choose.
I am mindful that, if the government did adopt the recommendation of the Kemp-Norton review and of the Bradley review before it to support all students in all registered higher education providers through the Commonwealth Grant Scheme, there would need to be very careful attention given to how this is done. After an in-principle decision along these lines, it would be necessary for there to be consultation and review of relevant evidence to determine the appropriate conditions of eligibility for Commonwealth-supported places, and the terms of such places. Obviously, only providers registered with the tertiary quality agency, TEQSA, could be eligible, and only for accredited courses; and there would be other important conditions as well.
Moreover, there are important differences between universities and non-university higher education providers that need to be recognised. As you know, universities are required to undertake research and non-university higher education providers are not. For this reason it would be appropriate for Commonwealth-supported places in non-university providers to be funded at a lower rate than in universities. There are other differences between universities and non-university higher education providers that may be relevant, perhaps including different community expectations and service obligations.
The size of the difference in funding per student would depend on careful review of the relevant arguments and evidence following any initial decision in principle to support all Australian higher education students with all registered higher education providers. The government would certainly wish to ensure that high-quality pathway programs into university are encouraged and supported in any such move.
The best higher education system in the world would continue to recognise that disadvantaged students need additional support to enrol in and complete higher education. In Australia these students include many students from outer-metropolitan and regional areas, many Indigenous students and others who may be the first in their family to attend higher education.
The Chancellor and Vice-Chancellor of the Australian National University, Professor Gareth Evans and Professor Ian Young, have recently argued that for Australia to have the highest-quality universities, we need to free universities to set their own fees. Gareth Evans and Ian Young also said, and I quote:
In such a system, access and equity becomes a crucial issue … we propose that any institution that raised the student contribution would also need to offer additional equity scholarships. Such scholarships could address both tuition costs and living expenses, thus addressing one of the real barriers to study suffered by low socio-economic status students. Such scholarships would also act as a magnet for enhanced philanthropic contributions to support outstanding students. The objective must be to enhance, not in any way diminish, access to students from disadvantaged backgrounds.
I believe that the world’s best higher education system would enhance both quality and access.
The world’s best higher education system would also provide better information for students and their parents about study options. Students need clear information about the quality of their course, how successful previous graduates have been at securing jobs and what other students and employers think of the course. I am committed to providing this information to future students.
The world’s best higher education system would prepare students for the jobs of the future.
Freeing up the universities and colleges to compete, diversifying the course offerings supported by government, improving access and equity, and providing better information to students will all help to provide opportunities for students to be become well prepared citizens and workers of the future.
No up-front costs for students but costs must be shared fairly
As I mentioned earlier, the government is considering how the costs of higher education should be shared across the community.
Whatever we decide about that question, opportunities for students must continue to be provided without them having to pay a dollar up-front.
Australia’s Higher Education Loan Program, where students make a contribution to the costs of their education only once they are earning a decent living, is the envy of the world. I am committed to strengthening this loan scheme to ensure it is affordable for students and the taxpayer into the future and remains a central component of our approach to higher education.
World class teaching and research - Australia must not be left behind
As I’ve said, we have a good system now but we need to do more to avoid slipping behind. The rest of the world is adapting while Australia is constrained by an out-of-date funding system.
A quality education system comes from each university and college providing the best teaching and research according to its strengths, meeting the needs of its students and the businesses that employ its graduates.
Australia has some truly world-class researchers. Programs initiated under the Howard government addressed the brain drain where our best researchers were leaving Australia for jobs overseas.
Freedom to meet the diverse needs of students
“Moscow on the Molongo” is a term that has been used to describe how the Australian government has controlled the university system from Canberra (which, as you know, is on the Molonglo River). The Soviet system was disbanded long ago but government control of universities in Australia lingers. While the government no longer tells universities how many bachelor degree students they can take, it continues to dictate how much students are charged for their place.
The current approach also limits what universities offer. Our best universities have limited prospects of competing with the best in the world and will be overtaken by the fast-developing universities of Asia.
The best higher education system in the world would give universities and colleges greater control over their budgets and their capacity to attract and keep students.
Universities and colleges would not be weighed down by unnecessary red tape and would be trusted to do what they do best – excellent teaching and research and nurturing students.
High quality without red tape
The best role for government is not controlling what universities do but ensuring that they can provide high quality without the burden of red tape and unnecessary reporting. The government has already taken a number of steps along this pathway to ensure principles of necessary, proportionate and risk-based regulation.
TEQSA was found by Kemp and Norton to be a guard against poor-quality courses and institutions in an expanding higher education system. TEQSA will continue to play this role as we give universities more freedom and as the number of students supported by the government and taxpayers continues to grow.
What can we expect in the Budget?
In his address to the Sydney Institute last week, the Prime Minister set the scene for the budget next week. He said “everything about this budget is calculated to boost the long-term strength of our economy”. Through this budget we will shift our focus from “our own short-term anxieties to our nation’s long-term opportunities”.
The Prime Minister said: “Universities’ funding will shift but they will have much more freedom to innovate and to build on Australia’s strength as a magnet for students, teachers and researchers from around the world….”
While I have not been revealing the details of the budget today, I can again assure you that it will contain a fair and balanced higher education and research reform agenda. This will enable Australia to have a truly world-class higher education system that spreads opportunity, achieving benefits for our students and our country.
In closing, I would like to urge those of you from universities and colleges to take up the exciting opportunities that reform to higher education will provide. For the first time you will have a real chance to demonstrate how initiative, innovation and creativity can benefit your students and the nation.
I also urge students to take up the new opportunities that will be available to them. Their enthusiasm and demands they make of their educational institutions will help to drive more flexible and successful education options.
Finally, I would like again to congratulate the Australian National Fabrication Facility and it is my pleasure to declare the Diamond Deposition Suite open.