Fee fix part of unis’ revitalisation

A recent report has proposed free undergraduate education as one of a raft of policy measures aimed at putting Australian public universities on a path towards full revitalisation.

The At the Crossroads report, prepared by public policy think tank the Australian Institute with the support of the National Tertiary Education Union (NTEU), analyses what it describes as the worrying state of Australia’s higher education based on existing funding arrangements and strategies.

The report’s author, economist Eliza Littleton, says At the Crossroads “provides an ambitious national vision for higher education that re-aligns the sector with its public service mission.”

Painting a grim picture of the status quo, Ms Littleton says public universities have experienced a decline of funding over the past few decades to 0.65 per cent of gross domestic product, compared to a 0.9 per cent average among Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development countries.

In real terms since 2013, Commonwealth funding of higher education has been cut by 2.6 per cent even though there has been a 23 per cent increase in student enrolments, Ms Littleton adds.

The report also points out that Commonwealth funding as a percentage of university funding has more than halved since the 1980s: it was 80 per cent in 1989 but only 33 per cent by 2019.

At the Crossroads presents two different views of the future of public higher education.

One is based on what the report describes as the current corporatisation of universities, complete with declining education standards and chronic job insecurity for higher education workers. The alternative is a future in which universities receive the support they need to deliver economic and social benefits to the community.

In relation to the alternative future, seven key policy initiatives are identified, which, if implemented should deliver much-needed revitalisation of the sector.

In addition to free undergraduate education, those initiatives include fully funded research, adequate public funding for universities, secure employment measures and more higher education staff, and caps on vice-chancellor salaries.

On the issue of free undergraduate education, the report notes that ongoing fee hikes and spiralling student debt are: “Denying hundreds of thousands of young Australians an opportunity to attend university and enhance their chances of finding quality employment.”

The report reveals that undergraduate students today take on average 9.4 years to pay off their degree debt, compared to 7.7 years in 2009.

The report found that free undergraduate education: “Not only has the benefit of reducing the widening gap between rich and poor but would help to ensure a workforce with appropriate skills for the future economy.”

At the Crossroads notes that free university tuition is not a radical idea, pointing to countries such as Germany, Norway and Sweden, where no fees exist. Free undergraduate education was abolished in Australia in the 1980s.

On the matter of university staffing, the report argues for nearly 12,000 new full-time academic jobs to reduce unsustainable workloads and the conversion of many casual academic jobs to permanent appointments.

At the Crossroads also takes a swipe at universities’ governance arrangements, claiming a declining number of elected members on governing bodies has undermined the democratic accountability and limited the participation of staff and students in university management.

In 2000, more than one-third of all governing body positions were elected. By 2020, the ratio was down to one in four.

At the Crossroads recommends the Commonwealth should move to ensure a majority of board members are elected.

Perhaps even more controversially, the report argues the Commonwealth should introduce a salary cap of $500,000 a year for vice-chancellors, indexed to inflation in future years. The current average salary for vice-chancellors of Australian universities is $1 million.

While many in the sector are in support of the report’s recommendations, implementing the initiatives will cost the Commonwealth an extra $6.9 billion a year and take the federal government’s total higher education spend to just shy of 1 per cent of Australia’s GDP.

But not all are in support of initiatives such as free undergraduate education, which alone would cost $3.1 billion a year.

As one member of the public puts it: “Why should those who have never been to university pay – through their taxes – for others to go to university for free?”

Journalist Jordan Murray provided his perspective on the report in the May 16 edition of Business News.

• Professor Gary Martin is chief executive officer of the Australian Institute of Management WA

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Fee fix part of unis’ revitalisation Source link Fee fix part of unis’ revitalisation

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