It’s hard to believe we are nearly half way through the year and perhaps even harder to believe that in our perpetual higher education Groundhog Day, we still do not know what the future of higher education funding and policy will be. I will come back to this point.
The significant good news at the start of this year is that based on the good results from first semester we are predicting an increase in commencing load this year of about 5%. This is the result of increased marketing activity, increased focus on conversions and I am sure the excellent performance of the University in terms of graduate outcomes. It has not been the case for all universities and I want to thank all the University’s staff for the work they have done to achieve this result.
Workforce of the Future
One of my side jobs is to chair the Executive Committee of AHEIA, the Australian Higher Education Industrial Association. At the end of last year AHEIA commissioned PriceWaterhouse Coopers to look at the future of the workforce in higher education. Although it sometimes said that universities are slow to change, we have seen enormous growth and change in the sector over the last 20 years. On my reckoning, one of the most significant changes is the degree of specialisation and casualisation in the academic workforce. Both of these, I think, have been in pursuit of increased productivity and the second has been a risk management approach. University funding has become much less certain as a more market-oriented approach has been taken by government. Acknowledging the growth in higher education funding as the system has grown, governments of both sides have raided the higher education budget to pay for other things. Labor was going to use it to fund Gonski and the Coalition have attempted to meet overall budget strictures.
What has been less talked about is the fact that over this period, full-time research and teaching academic positions have grown very little – about 8% between 1996 and 2014. I suspect that these staff members – particularly those at levels B, C and D – are still doing the bulk of the academic administration and management work for the now much bigger system. I therefore think that the complaints we hear about the pressures on academic staff have some justification. I believe it is time we rethought what we expect from academic staff and acknowledge that the academic management aspects are as important as teaching, research and engagement. In the case of CSU, we revised our promotions policy in 2014 and we will be keeping an eye on this to ensure it is delivering the things we want for staff and the University.
In parallel with the Federal Budget, the Government released an options paper which, it seems, was meant to leave options on the table while also neutralising higher education policy as an election issue. Right up front I need to say that the Government’s budget shows that they still intend to cut 20% of government funding from higher education places. It is surprising to me that there is so far not very much commentary about this – which amounts to a $2bn cut across the forward estimates – but perhaps we have all got used to the idea. From the point of view of universities perhaps this is not so bad because – at first glance – it seems the revenue would be made up by increasing costs for students. Estimates vary on the impacts of this but currently students pay about 40% of the cost so we would be looking at an average increase of about 25% in costs to students.
The arguments that are usually advanced for doing this are:
- the HELP system provides interest-free, indexed loans which means no-one has to pay upfront costs;
- students bear an equal proportion of the cost because of the private benefits;
- there is concern we are creating too many, or too many of the wrong sort of graduates and that increasing costs will help to make students think more carefully about choices; and
- international and local evidence suggests it is quite difficult to deter people from studying because they understand how important higher education is to career advancement.
Arguments in the other direction are:
- an awful lot of students are not school leavers and may in fact be making repayments because they are already working;
- OECD studies show that the public returns to higher education in Australia already outweigh the private benefits;
- one of the biggest costs of study is students’ time and they already have powerful incentives to take their choices seriously;
- it’s difficult to deter students from studying, but loading the costs onto graduates alone is tantamount to increasing tax rates for them; and
- there is legitimate concern about the impacts on equity as a result of increasing costs – acquiring a university degree does not reset your lifetime economic circumstances and there is a risk that this will have a disproportionate impact on lower-income earners.
I lean towards the second set of arguments, but I think we need a good debate about these issues. It was notable in the discussion about fee deregulation that the most enthusiastic advocates were those universities with students from the wealthiest backgrounds, I would be very worried if the higher education policy of either side of politics slipped through without scrutiny.
Murray Darling Medical School Bid
We have continued to push our medical school bid with the Federal Government and with other parties and candidates now that the election has been called. The proposal has been widely supported and government has acknowledged the value of it in addressing maldistribution of doctors in regional and rural areas. It is very frustrating that the Government has supported a new school in Perth at Curtin University and funding for a new node at Gosford for Newcastle University, both of which are in metropolitan locations and very close to existing schools. There is a strong suspicion now that the only thing that leads to a medical school being approved is electoral advantage as both of these announcements seemed to be linked to marginal seats. I trust that this is not the case, and that we will soon get an announcement on the Murray Darling Medical School. It is certainly not credible to argue that new medical schools cannot be approved and this reinforces the importance of continuing to fight for a solution for rural and regional people.
Strategy Development Process
We are currently going through a strategy foresight exercise to plan for our 2017 and beyond strategy. This has had involvement from a range people across the University, including Vice-Chancellor’s Forum. The process has developed a systems map of the external forces acting on the University and four particular scenarios are being developed which will be used to test our current strategic thinking and set the scene for the revised strategy. The aim of all this to deepen our understanding of our operations and environment so that we can face the future more confidently.
Three Faculty Structure
We are now approaching the cutover to the new three Faculty structure. Last week I met with the Heads of School and heard that, understandably, staff are feeling some apprehension as we approach it. This is a big change, and there is a lot of effort going into training staff and communicating the changes. As per the messages sent out to all staff by the DVC Academic, Toni Downes, the details will be communicated in the next couple of weeks as we run up to the change over. I want to thank all staff for their efforts to support this important restructure.