The government has finally announced the terms of reference and review panel for its review of university teaching funding. It was first promised in the May 2009 Budget.
The terms of reference acknowledge that the proposed new regulation of institutional and course standards changes things fundamentally. It would be irrational for one arm of government to set standards and another deny universities the finance needed to meet those standards (though as I have long had to tell bewildered newcomers to higher education policy, the fact that something is absurd has never been regarded as a valid argument against it).
The terms of reference are silent on one of the biggest issues in costs, whether the per student funding rate includes funding for research time. If it costs teaching alone – say 8 months a year including preparation time – the current funding rates probably are more or less adequate for a standardised education product. If research is not included, it will lead to a massive shake-up of the whole sector.
The terms of reference strongly link private benefit to the ‘fair’ contribution students make to the cost of their education. But it does not seem to accept that students should be able to invest differential amounts in their education. This has long been one of the central absurdities of higher education policy: for all the talk of ‘investment’ in higher education the bipartisan, long-term policy has been to restrict that investment.
I think the terms of reference leave it open to the review to recommend lasting mechanisms for adjusting prices in the higher education sector. If the review’s report doesn’t include such recommendations it will be a failure, just another in a long series of ad hoc patch ups that keep things going for another few years but don’t deal higher education’s structural problems.
The review is not going to report until October 2011. At least that gives me plenty of time to write my submission, and saves the government introducing new funding rates before 2013.