ABC News 24 Interview, CAPITAL HILL, 2 October


SUBJECT/S: Risk to Australia’s university rankings under Abbott Government higher education changes; Timing of higher education legislation.

LYNDAL CURTIS: The organisation responsible for ranking the world’s universities has questioned the Government’s plan to deregulate fees. Twelve Australian universities have improved their positions in the latest rankings. Eight of them are now in the top 200. But the Times Higher Education magazine, which compiles the rankings, says fee deregulation could harm Australia’s smaller universities. To discuss this I was joined in the studio a short time ago by the Opposition’s Higher Education spokesman, Kim Carr.

CURTIS:  Kim Carr, Welcome to Capital Hill. Do you see this as a good result for Australian universities?

CARR: Absolutely! It demonstrates the strength of the Australian university system, rather than necessarily the strength of one particular university. That’s what I think has been commented upon internationally. We have real depth in this country, real quality, and that’s because of the Labor Government’s investment in universities – a 100 per cent increase in investment over the life of the Labor Government. This is the sort of result you could expect to see.

CURTIS: There are, still, other countries doing better than Australia, some of them smaller countries. What are they doing right that Australia’s not doing?

CARR: Well, the reality is that we could always improve. We could always build upon our strengths. But the fact of the matter is that many other governments around the world spend more money than the Australian Government does. The Chinese Government, for instance, is doubling its investment in research and development every seven years. They are going from strength to strength. This is the real issue here: what is the Government’s commitment? What is the level of their responsibility to ensure the quality, particularly of our research capacities in this country.

CURTIS: Is it just money, though? Is there nothing structural that could be done to make Australian do universities better on the world stage?

CARR: We could always improve the administration of our universities, the culture of our universities, the levels of collaboration with industry.  But we have to focus on the reality that what governments around the world do is invest in their universities because they know how important they are to the future prosperity of their country. Australia should follow that example. What this Government is doing is cutting funding: 20 per cent cuts in funding for the teaching program, significant cuts in funding for the research program. What the Government is proposing would undermine the strength of the results that we’re seeing today.

CURTIS: Now, you’ve picked up on some of the comments by the people who do the university rankings about what may happen as a result of fee deregulation: whether it will simply protect the elite universities or we’ll see an improvement. Isn’t it the case that a country like the United States, which is enormously expensive to go to university, it does extremely well in these rankings – 15 out of the top 20 universities?

CARR: Some of the worst universities in the world exist in the United States as well as some of the best. I don’t want to see the Americanisation of the Australian education system.

CURTIS:  But it’s not just 15 of the top 20, it’s 22 of the top 30, 24 of the top 40 …

CARR: Because of the size, the sheer size, of the American system. But bear in mind one of the highest levels of inequality in the world, one of the highest levels of debt in the world. The Americanisation of the Australian system would not serve this country well, would not serve the fundamental principles of equity, would not serve the capacity of Australians to get a fair go. What we have come to expect in this country is that if you’ve got the brains, you’ve got the ability, you work hard, you’ve got the right to expect a quality education. What the Government’s proposing is to take that away.

CURTIS:  But shouldn’t Australia look at what’s good about the American system, what propels those universities in the top rankings to the top, and have a little bit of Americanisation?

CARR: No, the substantive issue here is that in the United States, their very largest universities spend the same amount of money as our entire system does. So you’ve got to compare apples with apples when you look at these issues. What we can say is the that the American Congress is looking at the question of student debt and they’re deeply concerned by what’s happening to ordinary middle-class Americans, not to mention the fact that working-class Americans are locked out of the system. As I repeat: the Americans have some of the best universities in the world, but many of the worst.

CURTIS: Is there a case at all for asking students to pay just a little bit more, maybe not as much as the Government wants but just a little bit more, to the cost of their education?

CARR:  Look, what we’ve seen in recent times is the Government’s claim that they’re switching this from 40 to 50 [per cent] is just not true. What we’ve seen, for instance, at the University of Western Australia, is that students will be required to pay between 60 and 70 per cent of their university courses. What we know from the Government is that they are cutting university expenditure. What we know from the Government is they’re cutting equality from Australia’s university system. What we know from this government is that they claim to be doing this so that we can get one or two universities into the top rankings. What we know is, we've already got them. But we don't want to undermine what's brought them into that situation and what's brought the entire Australian system into internationally high reputation.

CURTIS: Do you believe the government can get its changes through the Senate?

CARR: Absolutely not. What we do know is that the minister is now talking to people about deferring the whole package. What we do know is that the government is very concerned that they have not got the numbers in the Senate. They're beginning to realise that. They know that this is a package that's rotten to the core. Can't be amended. Can't be fiddled with. They know that this is a package that they've sprung on the Australian people without warning. They know they can't get it through the Parliament. That's why the minister is talking about deferring this to next year.

CURTIS: Kim Carr, thank you very much for your time.

CARR: Thank you.


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