IN the countdown to the federal election, Universities Australia chairman Peter Coaldrake believes there are encouraging signs of an emerging political consensus around the importance of universities in nation building.
With the sector at the centre of government plans to boost participation across the country, he tells the HES that now is the time to put aside the political fault lines that have made the sector a political battleground.
It is new territory that the expert on politics and public policy is keen to tread carefully by focusing on the pragmatic challenges ahead, rather than ideology.
He says universities accept and welcome the growing demands for accountability tied to the funding injections of recent years, while diplomatically signalling that practical issues around increased funding for infrastructure and teaching will need to be debated and addressed progressively as the system expands.
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"The higher education sector is in a much better place than it has been," says Coaldrake, deliberately seeking to raise the level of the debate beyond the habitual lobbying for funding.
"It has been a strong focus of policy interest, and there is a growing recognition of the importance of education and research as part of the development of the knowledge economy.
"There has been a significant injection of funding [and] there is a recognition that there has been an underlying commitment to quality."
Coaldrake says the passage last week of legislation boosting annual indexation for university funding had been the holy grail for the sector and had been supported by the opposition.
"The public positioning of universities has improved very considerably in terms of the recognition of the importance of what we do," he says.
He says there is now a recognition of the central role higher education plays in nation building, educating students and developing a knowledge economy through research. It is a trend he traces back to the funding increases delivered by Brendan Nelson in 2006, and taken forward in a more ambitious reform agenda by newly installed Prime Minister Julia Gillard and Science and Research Minister Kim Carr.
"I don't see why there should be any fault lines around the major programs of what we are trying to achieve nationally," Coaldrake says. "We are trying to improve access, we are trying to improve quality, we are trying to sharpen and improve the impact of the research focus, and we are seeking for our universities to be internationally engaged.
"If there are going to be partisan differences, let them be around the way in which particular initiatives are pursued, but not the idea of what has been proposed."
These political differences remain, most obviously in the Labor government's decision to abolish full-fee places for domestic undergraduate students. And the debate over possibly deregulating student fees will continue to bubble as the sector confronts a future where further funding injections will be needed to support quality.
The development of the new national regulator, the Tertiary Education Quality and Standards Agency, is also a potential fault line. The opposition has picked up on the fears among vice-chancellors that TEQSA risks wrapping them in red tape and constraining their independence. But Coaldrake says: "There is plenty of evidence that the government has taken notice of the issues we have raised, and we are seeking to work these through."
For him, it is a more practical task of ensuring universities are doing their job and delivering.
"I think universities, particularly the people who lead universities, know and have known for the best part of a generation that accountability and quality and impact are all-important."
An ongoing flashpoint between the sector and the Labor government has been over the funding needs of universities to support teaching quality and basic teaching infrastructure as the system expands. But for Coaldrake this is a debate for the near future, once the initial phase of the reforms to boost participation and deregulate student demand has been implemented.
"One would assume that the system, working with the government, will take stock around 2011 and 2012 and look at what the next phase is," he says. Specifically on infrastructure, Coaldrake indicates that "at the appropriate time in the next year or so we need to try and persuade [the] government that there is the need for further facilities funding which actually benefits the undergraduate population more broadly across the country".
He is cautious on the need for encouraging an expansion of new players into the degree market, noting that universities are already moving quickly to expand places.
"If you look at the growth achieved in the last year or so, I think universities are optimistic about the achievement of the participation rates by 2025," he says.
"You always want to ensure there is competition, but you want to be sure there is the demand to be met."
His comments come as state-owned TAFEs and private providers lobby the government to extend commonwealth supported places to other providers in the post-2012 uncapped system as a way to boost participation.
But Coaldrake cautions any extension of commonwealth funding should be considered only once tighter national regulation is in place.
"With more comprehensive and effective regulation, quality assurance and risk-based compliance arrangements in place, commonwealth-supported places could be extended for undergraduate education.
"However, we aren't at that stage yet."
Coaldrake also cautions that in the more competitive, student-demand driven system, universities in areas of more uneven demand such as regional areas, will need to be properly supported.