Hilmer: unis should copy approach of mining industry

UNSW Vice-Chancellor Fred Hilmer at the National Press Club in Canberra. AAP/Alan Porritt

Universities must adopt the campaign tactics of the mining industry if they are to have any chance against oppressive government regulation and fee structures, says the University of New South Wales Vice-Chancellor Fred Hilmer.

Mr Hilmer, who is also Chair of the Group of Eight (Go8) universities, has told the National Press Club in Canberra that universities have not traditionally been strong advocates, but that the time has come for them to “play in the public policy field a lot more aggressively”.

“I think we’re getting closer to a time where we’ve got to do pretty much what the mining industry did – just say ‘no’, take out ads and be absolutely vocal. And if we did that I think we would be listened to.”

The comment came at the end of an address about the future of Australia’s higher education sector in which Mr Hilmer said universities should be allowed to charge what they like for undergraduate fees - which are currently regulated by the Federal Government - and set free from the oppressive regulation that hinders diversity among institutions.

Mr Hilmer used his talk to attack the relentless push for “sameness” in Australian universities - a push that he says is stifling innovation and threatening to drag down the country’s best research institutions.

Although half of Australia’s universities are ranked in the top 400 globally, the rankings are backward looking, reflecting work done 10 or more years ago, he said. “If we look forward, the picture for Australian universities is not nearly as bright. US and UK universities, aided by currency movements, are aggressively recruiting international students. Our Asian neighbours are also developing first-rate institutions as national priorities, and they are competing for the best academics and the best students.”

Australian universities have met the challenges of international competition and technology so far, he said, but they cannot hope to do so any longer unless they meet a third challenge: the need to reform domestic policy, a mixture of “rose-coloured aspirations, oppressive regulation and scrooge-like funding”.

“It’s time to take the next step — fee deregulation. Given the budget situation and substantial increases in cost to the Commonwealth from higher participation, a significant increase in government funding is unlikely. Hence, many vice-chancellors are now coming to the view that fee flexibility, with appropriate safeguards to provide access for students from low socio-economic backgrounds, is the best option.

"The government should allow universities to charge increased fees from students in degrees with high private benefit, such as business, law, engineering and medicine. The impact on these students is significantly ameliorated by the HECS system which requires repayment of fees only when and if certain income thresholds are reached and could be further ameliorated by scholarships.”

Mr Hilmer said that if his university charged the half of its students who enter well-paid professions a surcharge of 25% of the current HECS payment, it could raise an additional $30 million per year. The university could use the money to employ about 250 new staff, in turn reducing the student-staff ratio and improving the quality of the education. “If this pattern was followed sector wide, moderate fee deregulation could readily create 3,000 new jobs at little or no cost to the Commonwealth budget.”

Funding flexibility is needed not only to combat sameness, Mr Hilmer said - it is also the only economically feasible way to bring funding to more appropriate levels, given that increases in international student income are unlikely: “I wouldn’t be doing my job as a Vice-Chancellor if I didn’t plead for more funds,” he said. “But every review of universities in recent years has found that we are underfunded and overly dependent on international student income. Most recently Universitas 21, a consortium of leading global research universities of which UNSW, Melbourne and Queensland are members, commissioned a benchmarking of university systems in 48 countries. Australia ranks 6th in quality, but 19th in resourcing. Yet we impose burdensome regulations on quality while not dealing with resourcing.”

Australian universities are sinking beneath the weight of regulations that are “encapsulated in a mind-numbing array of acronyms including TEQSA (Tertiary Education Quality and Standards Agency), AQF (Australian Qualifications Framework), CRICOS (Commonwealth Register of Institutions and Courses for Overseas Students), ESOS (Education Services for Overseas Students), ERA (Excellence in Research for Australia), MyUniversity,” Mr Hilmer said. The “futility and absurdity” of all these regulations is obvious from the jargon in which they are couched, he said.

The MyUniversity website, with its “poor data and limited search function”, is another example of “red tape that adds cost for little or no value”.

Mr Hilmer criticised Australian policy for failing to support world-class research universities and perpetuating the “myth of sameness”. “Universities are key players in research nationally and internationally. And the Go8 has a leading role, accounting for about 70% of university research,” he said.

“Yet, unlike other countries such as China, India, Korea and now France and Germany, Australian policy does not adequately recognise the importance of world-class research universities. Instead policy perpetuates the myth of sameness rather than the pursuit of excellence.

"For example, there is little connection between research block funding - an allocation of funds from the Commonwealth to cover research overheads - and differential performance. Block funding values all publications by type similarly and all PhDs by field similarly, with no regard for quality. As a result, some 25% of funding for research overheads goes to universities whose research is ranked by the government as ‘below world standard’. In an era of financial stringency, when four out of five researchers fail to get projects funded, how does this make sense?

"The underlying problem is that we lack a national research strategy that covers long-term funding and whether and where research should be concentrated. The lack of a strategy is evident from stop-start funding, for example, providing support for new medical research buildings but not for the staff and materials to do the work; support for major infrastructure like a synchrotron with a life of 30 years but no funds to operate and maintain it.”

Cutting red tape, deregulating fees and introducing a national research strategy are reforms that the Federal Government could introduce with minimal effort, Mr Hilmer said. “Both major parties condemn unnecessary red tape. Both argue for the innovation that fee flexibility would provide, and both recognise the importance of a national research strategy. All that remains is to stop pretending and just do it.”

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