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New Minister Values Choice and Diversity in Higher Education

Higher education institutions operating outside the public sector are feeling optimistic following the speech today by Education and Training Minister, Senator Simon Birmingham, according to peak body, the Council of Private Higher Education (COPHE).

In the first speech delivered by the new Minister, he noted the value of the private and TAFE sectors to higher education in Australia and called for a world-class system that gave “fair access for students”.

COPHE CEO Adrian McComb said Senator Birmingham’s keynote address to the Times Higher Education (THE) World Academic Summit at the University of Melbourne on October 1 was “balanced, thoughtful and encouraging”.

“The Minister recognised the key issues that threaten our higher education sector and prevent it from reaching its global potential. He also promised action as well as consultation,” Mr McComb said. “For a start, when he spoke of higher education, he was not just talking about public universities.”

Senator Birmingham told the international gathering that Australian university students receive an average fee subsidy of around 60%, whilst those whose needs are better met by a TAFE or private college, receive no such subsidy. If these students then borrow to cover their course fees, they have to pay loan fees of 25% [private] and 20% [TAFE].

Senator Birmingham said: “These discrepancies of government subsidy and loan fees are unfair, and a system of fair access for students would ideally rectify this for students at high quality institutions”. (p.11) He also said that “a better, fairer system may provide enhanced support for preparatory or alternative pathways, rather than one size fits all solutions.”

Also encouraging for private providers were the Minister’s comments that Australia should aim for a higher education system “characterised by excellence, diversity and choice”.

“Such a system would offer students a wide range of course options and differing modes of teaching from diverse institutions to meet the students’ particular needs, aspirations and circumstances. Students would be free to choose the options that suit them best and be well informed about the options,” Senator Birmingham said in his speech.

Mr McComb said the new reform timetable was understandable and it was widely appreciated that the Minister would consult further before the reform legislation was resubmitted.

“This is complex public policy, but our members know a lot about getting good outcomes for students and delivering value for money, which we consider to be at the core of meeting our students’ needs. We look forward to contributing to this round of consultation,” he said.

“It was also reassuring when the Minister said that by “consulting”, he did not mean aiming “to consign our universities and national competitiveness to years of inaction”, Mr McComb said.

“The Minister has clearly outlined the challenges so the whole sector now needs to work together to deliver a constructive response.”

A transcript is available at the DET Media Centre - ministers.education.gov.au/birmingham/keynote-address-times-higher-education-world-academic-summit

Media inquiries: Adrian McComb, CEO COPHE - amccomb@cophe.edu.au

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