Federal education changes could put Charles Darwin University at risk, says vice-chancellor


August 04, 2017 09:32:03

The vice-chancellor of Charles Darwin University says it may be “almost impossible” for the university to survive if the Federal Government’s proposed changes to higher education funding are implemented.

“The university is not sustainable in that sort of situation, as a young university we struggle now, we’re only just cash positive,” Professor Simon Maddocks said.

“These sorts of measures would make it almost impossible to see Charles Darwin University surviving into the future.”

Professor Maddocks warned such a scenario would have serious impacts on access to education for Indigenous students, for the Northern Territory economy and would undermine government policies on developing northern Australia.

He said he had written about his concerns to the NT’s representatives in Federal Parliament, including NT Senator and Indigenous Affairs Minister Nigel Scullion, and had written to the NT Government about the potential economic consequences for the Territory.

Professor Maddocks said he had also written to the Federal Education Minister Simon Birmingham seeking more information about the changes, but had not been provided with further details.

“We’ve sent him our modelling and we’ve said in the worst case scenario, this is going to happen, we would like the opportunity to discuss,” he said.

CDU claims ‘alarmist’: Birmingham

But Senator Birmingham defended the proposed changes and said analysis showed “alarmist claims” from the university sector did not stack up.

“This analysis shows that doomsday statements are simply empty rhetoric because efficiencies clearly exist,” he said.

“The facts are that real per student funding will still be higher than previous years when all or nearly every university was running a surplus, even with significantly fewer students.”

A Senate inquiry into the Government’s higher education bill is due to report next week and the legislation will come up for debate some time after that.

The package, which could be implemented from January, includes a gradual increase to student fees from next year, up to a total of 7.5 per cent by 2021.

CDU said the fee increase as well as the lower income repayment threshold could be a disincentive for prospective CDU students who it said often came from lower socio-economic backgrounds.

The Government’s package also includes an efficiency dividend for some grants and some government funding would be contingent on performance measures that would eventually include student retention and success

In a report released by the Federal Education Department in June this year, CDU had the worst student completion rate with only 42 per cent of students who enrolled in 2009 completing their studies by 2014.

But Professor Maddocks said the report failed to account for the fact that most CDU students took 10 years to complete their degrees because the university had many mature-age students who were studying part-time

Concerns about Indigenous students

Professor Maddocks said he was particularly worried about the impact of the proposed changes on Indigenous students because the university would be forced to charge fees for “enabling” courses, which helped students adjust to university.

“I just think it’s a really wrong message for those communities who desperately need to be supported in engagement, and it’s the wrong message to give Territorians and the future aspirations we all share for the appropriate development of northern Australia,” he said.

Sharona Bishop, 28, from the remote Timber Creek area of the NT is studying primary teaching at CDU.

She said she was the first in her family to study at university and said an Indigenous bridging course helped her settle in at the university.

“It’s basically about how to prepare students that have been outside school or study areas for so long, trying to get them to understand how the university goes about those things,” she said.

Senator Birmingham said the Government’s proposals would make sure Australia had a “sustainable” university system that offered a high quality education and a wide range of courses without any fear of upfront fees.

“Our reforms still see university teaching revenue grow by a further 23 per cent over the forward estimates,” Senator Birmingham said.

Professor Maddocks said the projected worst case scenario could see CDU lose more than $60 million in funding over the next five years.

The National Tertiary Education Union’s NT branch President, Darius Pfitzner, sad the changes would have a significant impact on staff numbers and courses at CDU as well as social and economic implications for the Territory.

“If we don’t have a quality education, what does the NT look like in 10 or 15 years time?” he said.