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Risk of education paralysis

By Alan Gilbert - posted Monday, 3 January 2000

The overwhelming negativism of the reaction to David Kemp’s leaked document, Proposals for Reform in Higher Education, bodes ill for the future of Australia in a global knowledge economy.

Screaming headlines and simplistic placards attacking the Federal Education Minister trivialise the profound truth that Australian higher education is running down at precisely the time when maintaining internationally competitive universities is more vital than ever to the nation’s well-being. Because the prognosis for Australia’s universities is poor under current policy settings, the onus is clearly on Kemp’s critics to come up with constructive alternatives.

John Howard and Kim Beazley have rushed to judgement, ruling out one policy option after another. The Prime Minister was clearly under immediate political pressure, while the Opposition leader was clearly buoyed by the opportunity that the leak afforded. Unwittingly, however, they may jointly have condemned Australian higher education policy to long-term paralysis.


If so, this episode will become a national disaster, for Australia simply cannot afford "business as usual" in higher education. Complacency about the status quo is actually the most reprehensible of all the responses.

Criticism is healthy. Policy proposals should be exposed to searching Cabinet discussion, public debate and parliamentary scrutiny. Where such debate is informed and constructive, the resulting adjustments make the result not only more acceptable politically, but usually also better, fairer and more workable.

Some of Kemp’s proposals certainly need serious reappraisal. Levying market interest rates on loan repayments threatens to create a significant financial disincentive for prospective students, and seems unnecessarily provocative. No-one, presumably, denies that a strong higher-education system is a major "public good", or that substantial public investment in our universities is vital. Failing to provide it would be like letting roads, bridges, air traffic control systems, health facilities, communications networks or other precious national infrastructure run down.

Nationally, as well as personally, lack of access to advanced knowledge and sophisticated skills will be the 21st century route to poverty and powerlessness. Do our political leaders and opinion makers actually recognise this? The inertial quality of national debates about higher-education policy points rather to a generalised complacency that all will be well if we just keep muddling along.

The rest of the developed world is placing an absolute premium on higher education. One global estimate has total education expenditure doubling in the next six years, and doubling again by 2012. Although governments in most developed societies reconise a need to increase public-sector spending on universities, the forecast is that public funding will be the smallest source of this prodigious increase.

The world-wide educational boom is being driven less by government revenue than by burgeoning corporate investment and individual "user pays". Why? Because higher education confers major private benefit as well as immense public good. Wealthy and middle class families have long recognised this as their children have taken advantage of "free" public universities funded by all taxpayers.


The real policy challenge is not therefore to make university education free, but rather to make access to quality universities equitable, and (by using public resources in enlightened ways) to ensure that no Australian is denied a good higher education on financial grounds. In a deregulated system based on user pays, a priority for public spending would involve equity and access measures, including scholarships and bursaries, designed to address this imperative.

Equity, access and quality thus constitute a crucial policy triumvirate. But genuine concern about quality has been sadly lacking in response to the leaked Cabinet paper. In this, David Kemp is right and his critics wrong. He has had the courage to recognise that present Australian policy settings and resource levels in higher education are incompatible with genuine international competitiveness.

Australia simply cannot expect its universities to match their international counterparts when even the best-funded of them have to operate with a quarter to a third of the recurrent resources available to the leading universities in the United States, Japan or Western Europe. That is why a number of vice-chancellors now advocate deregulation of the higher-education system.

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This article first appeared in the Australian Financial Review on Tuesday 19th October, 1999.

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About the Author

Professor Alan Gilbert is Vice-Chancellor of the University of Melbourne.

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