THE real challenge facing Federal Education Minister Brendan Nelson is whether he will steadfastly adhere to his ultimate objective after conceding numerous concessions.
If he sticks to his tough stance that A$404mil extra funding will be available only if the universities accept the capping of staff entitlements and remove the restrictions on casual employment, then there is little hope that his controversial A$1.5bil reform package will get through the Senate.
From the business perspective, his controversial demand seems reasonable, but from the academic point of view, it is a serious threat to academic freedom.
This is the crux of the issue as far as the vice-chancellors of Australia’s 38 universities are concerned. And they have the global support of 43 industrial relations academics from eight countries, including the United States and Britain, who last week petitioned a letter of protest.
The letter is addressed to Senate President Paul Calvert as the Higher Education Support Bill 2003 will be introduced in the Upper House of Parliament tomorrow.
Labour, Democrats and Greens senators have already indicated their opposition to the legislation, which allows the Howard government more control over courses, some university functions, and tying the extra funding to university workplace reform.
But, at the same time, the legislation recognises the need to make some important changes to improve and sustain Australia’s engagement in international education and training, and to meet the global demand for innovation in education services.
The government outlines three areas at risk to quality – inadequate inputs, inappropriate processes and insufficient outcomes.
To strive for greater diversity in the student mix, Dr Nelson wants Australia to ensure that it admits into its education services, on balance, more from the top than the bottom end of student abilities.
Australian providers will need to meet the minimum standards of curriculum, teaching and infrastructure inputs and their operations, including those undertaken in partnership with others, will need to comply with all legal requirements wherever they function.
The government expects graduates of Australian education to demonstrate sound learning outcomes.
To ease the concerns of the vice-chancellors and opposition parties, Dr Nelson has proposed 27 amendments to the Bill. But he rejects most of the fundamental demands of the vice-chancellors.
Despite the rejection, however, the vice-chancellors are prepared to lobby the opposition parties to get the Bill through the Senate.
In fact, the fate of the Bill will rest with the four Independent senators, who hold the balance of power in the Upper House.
One of them is Senator Meg Lees who, more than three years ago as the Democrats Leader, was instrumental in getting the Goods and Services Tax (GST) passed in the Senate after a series of intense negotiations with the Howard government.
This time, as leader of the Australian Progressive Alliance, she has made it quite clear that she would push for more changes to the reform package.
Specifically, she wants improvements to the number and size of scholarships for Australian students, particularly those from the rural areas. She is also seeking to reduce student debts under the Higher Education Contribution Scheme.
HECS students will have to pay back the cost of their tertiary education when they are employed over a certain salary level.
In addition, Lees wants to ensure that the industrial reform requirements in the higher education sector are fair and equitable.
But what is fair and equitable to her may differ according to the interpretations of each academic group or individual.
She says the concessions offered by Dr Nelson are not even halfway through her own list of demands.
Senator Lees can be a tough negotiator, although she has been accused of submitting to government pressure during the GST debate.
What her view is on Dr Nelson’s edict, that the maximum student contributions cannot be varied by guidelines, is not clear yet.
Nor is her reaction to the proposed removal of what the minister describes as “unnecessary provisions” relating to another student scheme known as “FEE-HELP”.
But there is general agreement to clarify the requirements of quality control in Australian universities in view of the recent adverse reports on the standard of education in some institutions.
Another important amendment is that the government, in its vision to create a world-class higher education, will not allow the establishment of any new tertiary education provider in Australia.
In his ministerial statement released recently, Dr Nelson declares that the government must take all necessary actions to ensure that only genuine providers are part of Australia’s education system.
Any institution that does not meet the standards of the Australian Universities Quality Agency will be closed down.
He points out that significant new funding will strengthen the compliance and enforcement activities to ensure Australia’s reputation is not damaged.
The government will also work with the education industry to develop a framework for quality assurance of Australian education services overseas with an internationally recognisable quality badge.
It wants providers of Australian education to be diligent and undertake accreditation checks on potential partners and subject themselves to independent audits and student satisfaction surveys, the result of which should be made public.
Undoubtedly, this insistence has merit as it will provide a competitive edge for providers and protect their considerable investment in overseas ventures.
But the government wants more than that. It seeks to further ensure that Australia’s reputation is protected and will provide funding for a “rolling programme” of quality audits focused on providers in particular sectors and countries.
Included in this special audit will be those covering Australian overseas higher education services as from 2005.
Dr Nelson stresses that Australia must do better to represent its education, training and research strengths to the rest of the world.
It has a reputation for achievement, excellence and individual brilliance in various areas, all of which are underpinned by its education and training strengths.
But Australia is not always recognised or appreciated for its range of expertise.
“Promotion by institutions of their own capabilities cannot make a sustainable impact for Australia in the global context. However, a concerted national approach can substantially lift Australia’s profile,” says Dr Nelson.
On its part, the government is seed funding five international centres of excellence to demonstrate Australia’s capability in Asian and Pacific studies, diplomacy, mathematics education, water resources management, sports science and administration, and sustainable tourism.
The centres will also extend Australia’s international linkages and provide national promotion of its excellence to a global audience.
The new legislation will lift the over-enrolment limit for universities to 5% without penalties and allow them to under-enrol by as much as 1% below their funding level without their grants being adjusted.
But, in any event, it is most unlikely the Bill will get through the Senate before the end of this year.
o Jeffrey Francis is editorial consultant, Australasia-Pacific Media (email: email@example.com)
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