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Australian education reforms figure prominently in emerging international education strategy

The Australian government has introduced its much-anticipated reform measures for the country’s higher education system. Tabled in the Australian parliament on 28 August, the Higher Education and Research Reform Amendment Act 2014 aims to deregulate tuition fees while at the same time reducing government funding to Australian universities by as much as 20%. The expectation is that universities would then increase tuition fees to whatever levels domestic and international education markets will bear in order to offset the shortfall in government funding.

For background on the research and policy process that led to the new legislation, please see our earlier post “Australia ushers in greater private-sector participation in higher education.”

The Australian government asserts that the bill is designed “to expand opportunity and choice in higher education in Australia, and ensure that Australia is not left behind at a time of rising performance by universities around the world.”

Education Minister Christopher Pyne told The Australian recently, “This is a once-in-a-generation opportunity to make lasting reform to the higher education sector that has real benefits to the economy, to universities and to students.’’

Australian Education Minister Christopher Pyne

As the minister’s comments reflect, the government’s view is that deregulation is necessary in order to improve the quality and competitiveness of higher education institutions in Australia.

While the minister envisions greater innovation and achievement within Australian universities as a result, it is the international competitiveness of Australian institutions that seems often to be at issue in the current debate, particularly given the increasing prominence of Asian universities in global ranking tables.

A 2012 report from Australia’s Group of Eight, the nation’s leading research universities, points out that Asia’s universities are indeed moving up in international rankings. It adds that many institutions in the region are receiving substantial increases in government funding for research and education and that growth in academic publications output from Asia is outstripping that of Australia.

Educators’ response mixed

Australian university leaders might like the idea of greater freedom in setting tuition fees, but the proposed legislation has nevertheless been hotly debated within the education system. Concerns abound particularly around the financial aid provisions of the bill as well as the extent to which higher tuitions may limit access to higher education.

With real levels of public funding to universities on the decline, Universities Australia Chief Executive Belinda Robinson has spoken in favour of deregulation: “Against a backdrop of ongoing public budget restraint, intensifying global competition, technological evolution and increasing student expectations and demand, it is incumbent on all of us to work in the best interests of our students, employers and the country in shaping and positioning our university sector for meeting, not just today’s challenges, but tomorrow’s as well. If we fail in that task, we risk paying the price, over time, of an erosion in the quality of teaching, of research and, inevitably of our graduates.

Government funding per student has dropped by 14.4% in real terms since 1994… It has become very clear to the sector that a new approach is needed to provide bottom-line insurance against frequently changing policy and budget priorities and to assure the quality and performance expectations of our students.”

Jeannie Rea, national president of the National Tertiary Education Union, adds, “We argue that the proposals facilitate the Government abrogating their financial responsibility to support a world-class public higher [education] system… In going down this path, future generations of Australians who do go to university will be shackled with debt the size of a mortgage with some degrees costing more than $100,000.”

Connection to national strategy

Speaking at the recent Australian International Education Conference in Brisbane (7-10 October 2014), Senator Bridget McKenzie foreshadowed details of a national international education strategy for Australia expected later this year. The strategy will, in many respects, be the government’s formal response to 2013’s landmark Chaney report on the Australian international education sector.

Senator McKenzie noted that quality of education was a key issue raised in the Chaney report and said, “We are on the same page there… The Government’s higher education reforms have been designed to promote opportunity and quality in Australia’s higher education and research system. They also reduce regulation, reporting and red tape. The Government wants to free education institutions from unnecessary burdens so they can get on with doing what they do best.”

The debate around the current government bill will centre around questions of quality, access, and affordability. All sides appear to be looking for stable and secure funding for Australian universities that will support quality, innovation, and access. But they differ on how to get there.

“The sector has looked carefully and closely at the Government’s proposals and come to the consensus view that fee deregulation, the next logical step in higher education policy, should not be opposed,” says Ms Robinson. “But we do believe that substantial improvements to the package are required.”

For the moment, the bill has been referred to the Australian Senate Education and Employment Legislation Committee for further study. The committee will file its report on 28 October 2014.

The government’s draft National Strategy for International Education is expected shortly as well, and it seems clear that issues of international competitiveness and internationalisation will continue to factor prominently in Australian education reforms going forward.

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