Australia's universities contribute substantially to Australia's national goals. They are central to each of economic progress, social development and ecological sustainability: the nation's triple bottom line.The sector has proven to be strong and vibrant, but its resilience has been tested by over a decade of neglect. On the one hand domestic and international student numbers at both undergraduate and postgraduate level have grown strongly over the last decade. Research activity continues to perform above expectations internationally, and has benefited from an increase in competitive grant funding and the effective pursuit of a variety of collaborative activities and innovative funding sources. In terms of governance and administration, the last decade has seen university management systems become much more closely aligned with, and in key areas exceed, best practice for large organisations in other fields.At the same time, there are significant uncertainties in the sector's future. Universities in Australia have reached a 'tipping point'. An anticipated sharp drop in the school leaving population over the next decade will impact on domestic enrolments. Global competitive pressures and a high exchange rate driven by minerals will make continued growth in international student numbers more difficult. A rapidly aging academic workforce will prove hard to replace given the relatively low numbers of entry level positions and research degree completions. Financial market conditions may impact upon university investment returns, philanthropy and the ability of universities to pursue innovative financing arrangements to support their growth.Underlying all these challenges is a fall in government funding in real terms of 40 per cent per student over the last decade, which has contributed to a dramatic increase in the student to staff ratio and the progressive running down of university infrastructure. The under-funding of universities has been paralleled by reduced access for students to support payments such as Youth Allowance. These challenges have resulted in a reduced capacity for universities to even better address major social policy issues such as increasing the participation rate of disadvantaged groups in universities, though absolute numbers have risen well.
Universities Australia made the following recommendations to Government to ensure that Australia's higher education system can sustain and enhance the knowledge foundation for the country:
- Establish a vision for the higher education sector based on excellence, diversity, inclusion and international engagement, and acknowledging the particular role that universities play in pursuing broadly based teaching and research in the public interest.
- Set a national target of 2 per cent of GDP for the higher education sector by 2015, with a pattern of increased public funding of universities consistent with this goal so as to at least reach 50 per cent of total university revenue.
- Provide transparent, predictable and sustainable funding for the full cost of teaching, research and external engagement programs, including through appropriate indexation of Commonwealth grants.
- Ensure adequate and consistent student service provision and student income support arrangements, including considering a reduction in the age of independence to 18, the removal of income assessment from all scholarships and an increase in the value of the Australian Postgraduate Award.
- Promote greater participation in higher education, especially for mature age groups, Indigenous Australians, and other less advantaged social groups, including via greater work-integrated learning opportunities and a more integrated education system.
- Ensure that regulation of higher education is fit-for-purpose and preserves the autonomous, self-accrediting nature of universities while enhancing partnerships and co-operation consistent with this process and while supporting universities to address key challenges such as the mass retirement of `baby-boomer' academics.
To read the Universities Australia's full submission, download the PDF below.
The final report from the Review of Australian Higher Education (the 'Bradley Review') was released on 21 December 2008 and the Government announced its response at Universities Australia's Higher Education Conference on 4 March 2009.