Posted by: Janek | April 17, 2011

The sector, one year on

CAPA has a longstanding relationship with Universities Australia, the national organisation for national university administrators, and, since 2009, we have attended their annual conference discussing the major issues facing the sector.

In 2009, the discussion was on the recently released Bradley Review – what did the recommendations mean, what should the sector do.  It was planning for change, and looking to work with Government to have this occur smoothly.

In 2010, announcements galore saw a huge series of discussions about how organisations like TEQSA were going to operate, the new funding scheme for Universities, even announcement of the MyUniversity website, similar to MySchool.  My former colleagues, Rashmi and Nick, provided a good review piece for New Matilda.

In early March, Universities Australia met again to discuss the past year, and seeking indicators for how this will affect the years to come.

Both Ministers Carr and Evans spoke, commenting on the ongoing changes from the Rudd and the Gillard Governments’ policies: changing the model of funding to demand driven, looking to uncap HECS/FEE-HELP places (meaning Universities can have as many commonwealth-supported places (CSPs) as they like), and the need for research at universities.

One of the most important sessions focused on the lack of funding in the sector. Chancellors Jeanette Hacket (Curtin), Paul Johnson (LaTrobe), and Paul Greenfield (Queensland) highlighted a range of issues in this area.

  • The combined amount coming in from CSPs and Fee-Paying International Students is insufficient (amounting to only 27.7% of income to a University).  The Australian Government spends 0.7% of its Gross Domestic Product (GDP) on Higher Education.
  • The government wants higher engagement from people in low socio-economic areas.  40% of the population lives in a rural area, and 19% of these go on to access Higher Education (the national average is 31%) – a low number because of lack of access for students in rural areas.  The costs for moving away to study are prohibitive, and many students defer indefinitely or reject offers, regardless of talent.
  • The government is seeking better student engagement on campuses.  There has been a 100% increase in casual and sessional staff on campuses, as student-staff ratios hit 20:1 (up from 14:1).  This has caused 16 of 24 universities to go BACKWARDS in international rankings (the QS World University Rankings, for reference).  While experience of teaching is good for students in higher degree research, the conditions the casuals are presented with vary wildly from positive to disgraceful.  Research shows that smaller classes allow for better engagement and learning conditions.

On the topic of student engagement, the proposed Student Services and Amenities Bill goes some of the way to helping student organisations, but the wording is so vague, so as to please people, that the money can be directed straight into University activities, and students can see their money diverted away from student-run enterprises, further reducing engagement on campuses.

The government is hoping to see more students enrol in a quaternary qualification, such as a Masters’ degree.  CSP funding is identical for an undergraduate and a postgraduate, so there is no impetus to provide a better standard for Masters students.  Parallel Teaching is suspected to be occurring, where postgraduate and undergraduate students are taught in the same class (we’re not talking about one or two students here).  Masters students end up in large classes, where the specialisation they expect from their degree is lost in a room of 20 or more students. Whilst Parallel Teaching may be a method of instruction, it is widely suggested to reduce the graduate experience.

The Lomax-Smith Review into Base Funding (see our submission here) is likely to find many of these issues, and the Government will need to decide how best to address a struggling sector.


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