The Guardian 6 July, 2005

Universities face massive upheavals

The Vice-Chancellors of Western Australia’s Curtin and Murdoch universities have announced they want both institutions to amalgamate, and the Vice Chancellor of the Edith Cowan University has indicated she wants to join them. The proposals are an outcome of the Howard government’s policies, which are starving universities of funds and forcing them to save on expenditure and find non-government sources of funding.

Across Australia, the tertiary education sector is facing huge changes as a result of the Howard government’s policies.

In 2003, ten of our 38 universities made a loss, and only two were ranked among the world’s top 100 universities.

The WA amalgamations promise greater "efficiencies", but only by course "rationalisations" and the shedding of staff in overlapping areas such as administration, teaching, research and support roles.

Universities, consciously starv­ed of funds by government for almost two decades, are now heavily reliant on external, non-government sources of funding, such as from full-fee paying private students, particularly from overseas. Professor Ian Chubb recently stated that if the international student market "fell over" tonight, the impact on Australian universities would be "close to catastrophic".

As the plug is pulled further on public funding, Australia’s 38 universities are forced to look for alternative sources of revenue to stay afloat. A number of them have set up private campuses for overseas students.

For example, a number of Queensland universities that have opened "satellite campuses" in Sydney.

These "satellite campuses" are private, often involve partners such as financial institutions, building companies and the accommodation sector. They provide packages including studies and accommodation.

They employ staff on a casual basis to teach by the hour and rely heavily on the public university for course development, etc. Their employment does not include research, the traditional and essential activity of university life.

The business of education

Curtin University of Technology, has joined them, offering courses in business studies to full-fee paying (mainly overseas) students, with the planned addition of education and nursing to follow soon.

The campus is run by a private firm, IBT Australia. IBT director, Rod Jones, has openly admitted that the wages and conditions offered to their satellite employees are less than those of employees at the regular Curtin campus staff in WA.

He said with some pride that the policy would "avoid the overheads of a traditional university that supports full-time tenured staff and must also budget for research." He added: "We believe this model (of employment conditions) can deliver education at a lower cost than established universities".

Until now IBT has concentrated on running full-fee pre-university courses for overseas students. Its move into the traditional areas of pre-graduate university study, its cutting of normal full-time regular employment pay, conditions and security, and its lack of involvement in research, signals the way that university education is heading under the Howard government.

The government has introduced new regulations to ensure that universities do some research, but the prospect for it is beginning to look very bleak. Some universities may have to compromise their independence and share research facilities with other universities, or else cut their research programs.

The Vice Chancellor of Curtin University, Professor Twomey, said last week "…everything that’s happening at the moment says that unless you have a very powerful research entity within your universities, it’s going to be quite hard for you."

The developments in university education are beginning to illustrate what is likely to be the end result of the Howard government’s education policies.

This will include:

  • Continuing decreases in the amount of university funding per student

  • Ongoing cuts in staff numbers and the casualisation of employment, leading to the chopping of university staff pay and conditions

  • Continuing rises in the student to staff ratios

  • An increase in the proportion of full-fee paying students until they become the clear majority of students

  • An increase in the proportion of students studying "job opportunity" courses of questionable value

  • A decrease in the amount of research carried out, with most research focusing on commercially attractive areas of activity

  • A higher incidence of cases of academic corruption, particularly to ensure full fee-paying students get through their courses

  • A decrease in the academic status of Australian universities

  • Government funding and support for private universities, and an increase in their number.

    When asked recently whether he thought of university education as a right or a privilege, Education Minister Brendan Nelson recently answered:

    "I think it’s a privilege. I think all of us need to appreciate that having university education is not something that any of us should ever take for granted."

    In answer to a subsequent question about the cost of his own university education, the Minister took evasive action and replied: "Well, my education was paid for — my education was paid for by the average working Australian".

    That’s the Minister’s way of saying that his education was free.

    Back to index page