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Poll reveals public, academics disagree on reforms

A poll shows many academic staff are at odds with university leaders – and a majority of Australians – over the government’s higher-education reforms as the legislation continues its journey through the Senate.

The results of a national survey released yesterday, carried out by GA Research at the request of Universities Australia (UA), has found more than half of Australians support the passing of the Coalition’s reform bill in amended form.

When asked last week to rate their level of support for the reforms – without amendments – 59 per cent of the 1282 respondents opposed the reforms (40 per cent strongly opposed 19 per cent mildly opposed).

The support shifted, however, following three key amendments: reducing the magnitude of university funding cuts; maintaining CPI interest rates on HECS-HELP loans; and an adjustment package to help institutions transition to a fully deregulated system.

Support for the amended reforms rose to 56 per cent (25 per cent strongly supportive and 31 per cent mildly supportive) whilst opposition fell to just 18 per cent (8 per cent strongly opposed and 10 per cent mildly opposed).

Universities Australia chief executive Belinda Robinson said the research demonstrated that “with key changes, the Senate can ensure that fairness is injected into the core of the package”.

“The Senate has the opportunity to shape a package and leave a lasting legacy of which it can be proud – a legacy that strengthens our universities while keeping the system fair,” Robinson said. “Let’s not kick the can down the road for another generation to grapple with and risk the quality and competitiveness of our higher education system.”

The amendments mentioned to respondents in the survey last week closely aligned with those a Coalition-chaired Senate Committee recommended in its final report, released on Monday following an inquiry into the legislation.

The spokesman and co-founder of the recently formed National Alliance for Public Universities (NAPU) Dr Ben Etherington rejected the survey, however, saying it “seems to have been conducted in order to help support the position that Universities Australia has adopted in their lobbying [efforts]”.

Etherington, a researcher and lecturer at the University of Western Sydney, also questioned the validity of the survey’s sample cohort.

“Why haven’t UA consulted the people they represent?” he asked. “The academic and administrative staff in the lecture theatres and laboratories around the nation know these reforms will be a disaster for Australia’s public universities.

“Any form of further deregulation is the wrong direction for our universities. UA should be asking staff and the public what kind of university system they want, not what they might swallow short of total catastrophe.”

NAPU was founded by academic staff from the University of Sydney, University of NSW and Melbourne’s RMIT, due to frustrations that their own views and concerns over the government’s reform plans were being ignored by their vice-chancellors as well as key representative bodies such as UA and the Go8.

A petition the group is circulating had almost 600 signatories as of yesterday, including from academic and other university staff at virtually every university in Australia.

Debate on the legislation is due to recommence when Parliament sits again in late November.

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