Senator The Hon Simon Birmingham,
Minister for Education and Training,
Canberra, A.C.T. 2600
August 5, 2017
I am writing to request a 15-minute meeting at your convenience sometime in the week after next (August 14-20) to discuss online tertiary education for remote students in Northern Australia. Specifically, I would like to pose the question: “Will the proposed regional study hubs complement or undermine existing regional universities’ online education programs?”. I should add that I have advised on remote rural education in many Asia-Pacific countries as a resource person for UNESCO; for three years I headed up the Education Advisory Council which advised your NT counterpart, and I have been chief investigator on three ARC-funded projects, including one called “Interactive distance e-learning for isolated communities: “Opening our eyes” (2005-9).
At our meeting I would like to discuss the purported regional benefits of the Higher Education Reform Package, as itemised by your government, and the growing concern in the Northern Territory that small regional universities, such as Charles Darwin, will find it very difficult to cope with a 2.8 per cent cut to their budgets. The perception here is that a $63 million hit to CDU would have alarming consequences, not just for the university and its staff, but for the demographic stability of Darwin, Australia’s premier front-line town.
I speak on my own behalf, not as a paid lobbyist or proxy for some group. As I understand it, $15 million will be committed by the Australian Government over four years to establish and maintain up to eight community-owned, regional study hubs across mainland Australia. It is said that the hubs will improve access to higher education for regional, rural and remote Australia by supporting regional students to study distance education courses locally; i.e., ones delivered by distance from any Australian university. My question to you is: How would these provide “greater access to study support and infrastructure” than is currently offered by regional universities? Could such an intitiative undermine the excellent online programs that are already being offered? As one of the first staff members at any university in Australia to help put a whole course online (Applied Linguistics in 1988), I would like to discuss this move with you in more detail.
I would like to share a brief story. One day I was in Camberwell, Melbourne, for some meetings at ACER. At that time Professor Peter Karmel was still President of the Australian Council for Educational Research, but those of us who were on ACER’s Council had to vote to extend his tenure by 12 months, because he had reached the customary retirement age.
Several of us met for coffee at ACER this particular morning in 1996. Aware that I was Dean of Education at the time, Peter asked me to share my thoughts about the effect on my university of some financial changes recently introduced by the Howard government. My doubts and concerns led to a more general discussion about whether the Commonwealth would ever allow institutions such as the Northern Territory University (now Charles Darwin, of course) to fail.
Professor Karmel had a more benevolent view than I did. It was his considered opinion that the Commonwealth Government, mindful of the needs of all of its universities, would always make appropriate financial provision for them. Having read Michael Pusey’s book, I asked “Don’t you think that if a Government allowed itself to be driven by a narrow, economic-rationalist approach it would be willing to let a provincial university hang out to dry, and would not care about its fate?”. He was shocked by my question. Professor Karmel could not conceive of that possibility.
Peter Karmel, for me, embodied much of the Australia I cared about then. He was privileged in a sense—having had the opportunity to go to Caulfield Grammar School, whereas you and I were educated in public secondary schools—but he did have a broad, compassionate and enlightened vision of what kind of education was needed for all Australians. As you know, he was a broadly educated economist, as were others of his generation, such as Nugget Coombs, so his view of Australia’s educational future was not focused on short-term expediency nor did it simply mirror the perspectives of the large coastal city populations in Australia.
I know that, as Minister of Education, you have the unenviable task of balancing many seemingly incompatible requests for Commonwealth assistance and support. Even so, it is undeniably true that the achievements of universities servicing remote rural Australia and the tropical north can be overlooked by Canberra’s policy makers.
Throughout my career I have often spoken and written about the challenges of providing adequate support and maintaining high standards in non-mainstream educational contexts. These challenges are never easy for policy-makers, who are always faced with many choices. I do not imagine for a moment that your Higher Education Reform Package was intended to saddle some universities with crippling hardships, but that appears to be the likely effect nonetheless.
This will be the consequence of increasing student contributions, lowering the repayment threshold, decreasing Commonwealth contributions, applying an efficiency dividend to core CGS EFTSL and regional loading, and limiting access to enabling programs, “the try-before-you-buy” opportunity for many who would not otherwise have a chance to set foot on campus. The pernicious effect of these changes, when combined, could lead to CDU facing a funding shortfall of up to $63 million over the next four years. The Vice Chancellor has advised that “the University would be hard pressed to absorb a funding shortfall of that magnitude”.
Small regional universities such as Charles Darwin have a geographical, social, moral and strategic responsibility to provide people with pathways into vocational education and higher education, especially those students or potential students in remote areas of Northern Australia, where low SES backgrounds as well as cultural and linguistic differences need to be catered for. It is critical that this work continue, both face to face and online.
All Australians should have a vested interest in the safety, security, education and well being of Northern Australia. It is imperative that small regional universities such as Charles Darwin should remain strong, responsive and vital so that they can properly fulfil their role. Recently ranked in the top 50 new universities worldwide, CDU deserves better than to fail, because a Canberra-initiated reform package caused it to do so. I am sure you would agree with that.
In its final report the Higher Education Infrastructure Working Group noted (p.51) that “Charles Darwin University may obtain advances from the Treasurer, an overdraft from an Authorised Deposit-taking Institution or from any other person”. Is it the intention, Minister, to encourage small universities such as CDU to go into debt? That seems to fit with the terms of reference of the small working group you set up in May 2014; e.g., “to examine…opportunities for better employment of internal reserves and all available financing mechanisms, including capital markets, to support development of infrastructure”.
I submit to you, Minister, that while public-private partnerships for the development and management of infrastructure might make sound financial sense, significantly pegging back the level of Commonwealth support for smaller universities’ programs creates considerable financial risk for them. I would love to have the opportunity to meet you so that I could try to persuade you not to go down that path.
Out of courtesy I advise that this letter will be shared by e-mail and social media with a few individuals, including the Vice-chancellor Professor Simon Maddocks, several politicians, and some colleagues.
Honorary Professorial Fellow
M: +61 4 1782 9496
CHARLES DARWIN UNIVERSITY