EDITORIAL: Government's university funding reforms blocked

UNIVERSITIES, including the University of Newcastle, have uniformly welcomed the intervention of departing senator Nick Xenephon and his team in joining with the Greens and Labor to block the Coalition’s proposed cuts to university funding.

This is hardly surprising, and it has been argued that the new policies – including higher student fees and harsher student loan repayment schedules – would have made things more difficult for the sorts of regionally based, lower socio-economic students who are a substantial slice of Newcastle’s student body.

This is the third time in three years that the federal government has attempted to reform university funding, and unless the blocked legislation is broken into smaller, separate bills, the government’s efforts are effectively dead in the water.

At the same time, however, the Productivity Commission’s latest five-year review, titled Shifting the Dial, has listed what it sees as a range of major concerns with the university sector.

The commission says that more than one-quarter of university students do not finish their degrees, and that Australian students are less satisfied with their educational experience than are their counterparts in the United Kingdom and the United States.

Importantly, the commission has also questioned the way that universities give pre-eminence to research over teaching, saying a “gladiatorial obsession” with research performance means a “focus on teaching quality is not rewarded”.

The commission says that universities are earning more from some courses than they cost, so much so that the subsidy across to research could be as much as $1.5 billion a year, or almost half the $3.5 billion the government pays universities in annual research grants.

This focus on research means that much of the teaching is done by casuals. The commission says 80 per cent of teaching-only staff are casuals, a situation it says “will not generate the best educational outcomes for students”.

And at the end of the day, that is surely the important thing. Universities have gone from being a niche interest a few decades ago to the point where most young people either want, or are expected, to go to university. They need a system that suits their needs, without sending them, or the budget, broke.

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