The Guardian 14 February, 2007

Maths, science — the HECS frontline

The deplorable state of maths and science teaching in Australian universities has become the latest battleground for students, academics and other staff resisting the impact of the Howard Government’s policies on the troubled higher education sector. According to an Academy of Sciences report examining conditions in eight Australian universities, maths departments have lost almost one third of their permanent staff in the past 10 years.

A forum in Canberra involving the Council of Science Deans and the CSIRO has said that the current crisis is undermining Australian industry.

Education Minister Julie Bishop has contracted pro-corporate Access Economics to perform a hurried review of the Commonwealth’s cluster funding arrangements. The report is due on March 6. Labor has promised an "education revolution" which includes plans to cut HECS and provide other financial incentives to attract students back to maths and sciences courses.

The Howard Government introduced "differential HECS" in 1997, basing the fees demanded from the student on what the government estimates is the actual cost of providing the courses and the anticipated lifetime earnings of a graduate. Fees for sciences courses doubled while arts courses went up by one third. In 2005, the government was forced to cap HECS at a lower rate for aspiring teachers and nurses when critical staff shortages developed in those sectors. The Federal Government is resisting making any more exceptions to the workings of its Commonwealth Supported Place Formula.

Government funding to universities has declined in real terms since 1996. A research paper from the National Tertiary Education Union (NTEU) entitled Students Pay More: Universities Get Less shows that, while in 1996 students were repaying about 20 per cent of the cost of their courses through contributions, by 2005 that proportion had grown to 40 per cent. Some students are now repaying as much as 84 per cent of the cost of their higher education.

"The NTEU paper debunks the myths being spread by many about the costs of higher education, including Prime Minister Howard, who recently claimed the contribution government-supported students make to the cost of their university education represented a ‘fair balance’ between their future earnings and what the government pays, and that about 75 per cent of a HECS funded place is paid for by the tax payer and 25 per by the student," NTEU Policy and Research Officer Paul Kniest said recently.

High as student contributions are, universities are struggling to deal with cuts in Commonwealth funding. They can cross-subsidise from the monies wrung out of full-fee-paying students. "We can survive but the price is that there are fewer [practical exercises], fewer tutorials and classes are larger", University of Queensland Professor Paul Greenfield told The Australian last week. The Australian Vice-Chancellors Committee has called for a 15 per cent increase in funding from the Commonwealth.

Some observers have questioned the assumption that high fees alone are entirely to blame for the decline in maths and science enrolments that, in turn, has led to the job-shedding in those university departments. Another source of the problem is to be found in Australian high schools where there has been a 7 per cent drop in the number of students taking maths at the advanced and intermediate level since 1995.

The NTEU has said that the ALP’s proposal to reduce HECS for maths and science students is only a partial solution.

Meanwhile, the University of Sydney has been forced to accept a condition on the acquisition of land from the Catholic Church — the site of St John’s College — that foetal stem cell research will not be carried out at the medical research institute to be built on the location. The Academy of Sciences has slammed the agreement, which it says harms Australia’s reputation for independent research.

"It seems unreal that a religious group can pursue their minority views and stop research at one of our top universities from taking advantage of every means to help prevent and treat diseases like motor neuron disease, cancer and cystic fibrosis," chair of the acad­emy’s Committee for Medicines Bob Williamson said.

Defending the arrangement, university vice-chancellor Gavin Brown said that the Church had originally placed even more stringent conditions on the deal. "Taking a position of total secularity and saying we will never accept any conditions on bequests, donations or transactions will lead to an incredibly impoverished environment," Professor Brown told The Sydney Morning Herald.

Constraints on medical research from religious group, research funding from corporations including the manufacturers of military hardware and other distortions of the purpose of universities in society are inexcusable but inevitable while they remain inadequately funded.

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