International reputation of Australia's higher education system must be maintained
Extending Federal Government funding to for-profit non-university higher education providers (NUHEPs) as proposed by the Kemp-Norton review is a policy high wire act which, if not properly controlled, could endanger the hard won reputation of the Australian higher education sector, Universities Australia’s Chief Executive Belinda Robinson said today.
While Universities Australia strongly supports the central thrust of the Kemp Norton Review of the Demand Driven Funding System to retain the uncapped university system, Ms Robinson called for a cautious approach to be exercised in considering its recommendation to extend public funding to for-profit NUHEPs.
“Although universities are not opposed to even more competition, this represents a radical change to the ecology of Australian higher education and warrants further, deep and comprehensive analysis, including of any unintended or undesirable consequences.
“Before committing to such a huge gamble with what has been a highly successful and internationally regarded system, we would want to ensure that the odds of success were as short as possible,” said Ms Robinson.
“There are a number of complex issues that require careful consideration. First and foremost is the imperative of preserving the reputation of Australia’s higher education system.
“Australia’s universities are highly regarded around the world and have built their reputation for academic excellence and research ingenuity over decades.
“Without appropriate controls, expanding the demand driven system to profit-motivated higher education providers could pose a substantial risk to the reputation of the entire sector, with devastating consequences,” said Ms Robinson.
Australia attracts the third highest number of international students – after the United States and the United Kingdom – who are drawn by the record of achievement of our universities built up over a considerable amount of time.
Ms Robinson also pointed out the absence of a level playing field between universities and for-profit NUHEPs.
“Universities are statutory institutions subject to parliamentary oversight and, in serving and delivering in the public interest, subject to significantly more reporting and governance obligations.
“There is a question around the extent to which these same obligations would apply to for-profit NUHEPs.
“This potentially places an enormous additional burden on TEQSA, still in its early days, and may require a recasting of the current debate around regulation and the Federal Government’s welcome efforts to introduce light touch regulation for low-risk university sector providers,” Ms Robinson pointed out.
“While there are excellent private providers, there is a risk that subsidies for for-profit NUHEPs would encourage others to opt for high volume, low cost courses.
“This would compromise one of the key achievements of the demand driven system as applied to universities and identified by the review – its success in matching skills to labour market needs,” said Ms Robinson.
“In considering this recommendation, serious analysis must be undertaken on the potential impact on educational quality, Australia’s international reputation, potential taxpayer dollar waste as a consequence of institutional failure, relative quality assurance safeguards (both internal and external) and the capacity for meeting future labour market needs,” Ms Robinson said.
In these times of fiscal challenge, the Government is looking very carefully at the allocation of increasingly scarce public funds.
“To apportion these to re-engineering Australia’s higher education system in the absence of evidence to suggest that the fundamental structure of the system is broken, and in the face of universities and research programs already being under substantial financial pressure, would represent a head-scratching re-ordering of priorities,” said Ms Robinson.
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