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In Support of Private Colleges - McComb in The Aust

  • THE AUSTRALIAN – Opinion page online and in print
  • APRIL 28, 2014 12:00AM

THERE is a lot in the Norton-Kemp review recommendations to consider but most of the commentary to date has been around “funding” for institutions that are not public universities. Our country boasts of its student demand driven system that delivers access to higher education for all. But in reality the system is limited as it only supports students who choose to study at a public university. One has to ask what sort of demand driven model this is.

It’s certainly not a model that embodies the principles of equity, choice and diversity. Imagine if Medicare restricted benefits to a limited list of qualified doctors. The health industry — which is 30 per cent private — includes ASX-listed providers that are funded for public patients.

Had the government of the day only taken advice from Ansett and Qantas we would still have a two airline policy and be paying $400 for tickets from Sydney to Melbourne. We need to be wary of the many commentators, mostly on university payrolls, who constantly denigrate private higher education institutions. The terrible “hairdresser and cooks” immigration rackets that were cleaned up a few years ago had no relationship to higher education however slurs keep coming from people who should know better.

The Bradley review noted that the public-private divide is no longer sensible and recommended that private institutions be included in the demand driven system once a strong national regulator was in place. The Labor government paid this recommendation lip service, but never implemented it.

Noting recent comments by former Prime Minister Malcolm Fraser that the University of Melbourne receives less than 25 per cent of its funding from the federal government reveals another curiosity. Universities do not consider commonwealth student support as funding. Finance reports for 2012 show Commonwealth support for Melbourne at 53.9 per cent of income. Strange when one considers most of the recent commentary has branded student support as funding if applied to private institutions. It is worth noting that university funding comes also through capital grants and research plus a myriad of other schemes.

Australia has a very narrow definition of what constitutes a university and clings to the myth that all universities are research intensive. Our universities are very large by world standards, and have been driven by heavy public investment since Menzies who, with great foresight, made higher education a priority. The US embraces a much wider range of degree granting institutions and the best are private and small by comparison. Across the world there is an increasingly diverse range of institutional types with much of the growth coming from investment in private for-profit institutions.

Private higher education providers can deliver opportunities often unavailable through the universities whether they be niche courses, location, low staff-student ratios or high levels of industry engagement. Significantly, private institutions are all subject to TEQSA oversight as are public universities. We are the same, but we are also different.

Private providers thrive and survive only because they deliver outcomes for students. They are not reliant on public investment but do seek policy that provides equitable treatment of their students.

It is tempting to become side tracked by discussing hungry goannas and other hysteria driven through the self-interest of the public university sector. Universities Australia itself incredulously ignores the fact that the vast majority of very successful pathways programs for universities, critical underpinnings for international education, are delivered by private corporations.

Targeted reform is needed in higher education but the focus must be on achieving good outcomes for students at a cost that represents value to the student and the taxpayer. A thriving higher education sector, where public and private institutions all play to their strengths, is essential if we wish to ensure that our students reach their potential in an increasingly global and competitive economy.

This will only occur if the sector casts away self-interest and focuses its attention on students, fully embracing the principles of equity, choice and diversity.

Adrian McComb is CEO of the Council of Private Higher Education.

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