Tony Abbott, leader of the opposition, has suggested that he may not make many changes to higher education policy if elected into government later this year. In a speech to the Universities Australia annual conference, Abbott said that “masterly inactivity” is underrated as an approach to policy-making for some sectors.
Abbott spoke of “fine-tuning” the system rather than introducing major changes and of “humility” from government ministers, who are no more qualified to make decisions about the running of universities than those working in higher education. “Often, there is nothing that government can contribute except interference. Higher education is one area where government’s role is more to be a respectful listener than a hands-on manager.”
“A period of relative policy stability in which changes already made can be digested and adjusted to (such as the move to demand-driven funding) is probably what our universities most need now,” he told university leaders at the conference in Canberra on 28 February.
If elected, Abbott says he would seek to ease the reporting burdens of universities; the Australian Charities and Not-for-profits Commission would be abolished, as institutions should not have to report to this body as well as the Tertiary Education Quality and Standards Agency.
Though universities have no more right to be inefficient than any other institution, Abbott said, funding for higher education is rarely wasted as long as it goes into teaching or research. Bringing in longer-term research grants would mean that researchers could spend less of their working life filling out grant applications, he also said.
Abbott said his centre-right opposition coalition would produce a new version of the Colombo plan so that Australia can benefit from the circulation of students in the Asia-Pacific region. The original plan gave thousands of students from around the region the opportunity to study in Australia. The opposition has also launched a higher education working group to focus on how Australian universities can take part in the online learning revolution.
In a statement released after Abbott’s speech, Chris Bowen, minister for tertiary education, skills, science and research, accused the leader of the opposition of failing to promise universities that their funding would not be cut if he wins the election. The speech, said Bowen, was “devoid of substance, real policy or funding commitments”.