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Western Australia set to review public university structure

The Western Australian state government will conduct an independent review into the state’s universities to “consider how structural change could strengthen the local university sector and delivery for students,” reopening debates around a potential merger of the state’s universities.

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A photo of the University of Western Australia's Student Hub building. It has a glass base and latti

The Western Australian state government will conduct an independent review into the state’s universities to “consider how structural change could strengthen the local university sector and delivery for students,” reopening debates around a potential merger of the state’s universities.

The independent review, announced in late February, will examine the structure of WA’s four public universities, which includes the University of Western Australia, Curtin University, Edith Cowan University, and Murdoch University.

This follows high-profile calls to amalgamate the four universities, with Western Australian Chief Scientist Peter Klinken claiming in 2021 that the larger scale university structure that would result could assist with rankings, performance, and enrolment numbers.

Premier Mark McGowan and Education Minister Dr Tony Buti announced that the review “would investigate what changes may help to better support the performance and financial sustainability of the State's four public universities.”

The review comes off the back of a decline in Western Australia’s tertiary sector, with 2020 seeing only 5.5% of international students studying in Australia enrolling in universities in the state. Before the Covid-19 pandemic, WA universities were already experiencing decreased Commonwealth funding and a declining share of competitive research grants.

McGowan and Dr Buti said the “increasingly constrained” environment in the state’s university sector prompted the review. 

Steven Chapman, Vice-Chancellor of Edith Cowan University, has voiced his support for the review, saying he will ensure it reflects the diversity of WA. In 2021, he opposed Klinken’s proposed amalgamation, calling it “superficial and flawed”.

“In the top 25 universities [in the world], only one of those universities is bigger than our biggest university, Curtin [University] – that’s [the University of] Toronto – so it’s nothing to do with size,” Chapman said.

Not all of the state’s academics support the review — and potential amalgamations — with the National Tertiary Education Union (NTEU) calling the review “mistimed, misdirected and [lacking in] transparency.”

“It doesn't make sense to have a state review when the Federal Government is canvassing the biggest changes to the sector in more than a decade through the so-called Accord process,” said NTEU WA Division Secretary Dr Catherine Moore.

"Public universities are a public good. Their mission to provide quality teaching, research, infrastructure and expertise to communities must be at the core of any review.”

The NTEU is calling on the state government to “rule out” the merging of the four public universities, citing job losses and a “major impact” on teaching satisfaction as amongst the consequences, causing both students’ experiences and universities' reputations to suffer.

Curtin Guild President Dylan Botica said in a February press release that the “McGowan Government’s rush-job review has ignored the existential threat it poses to student unionism in Western Australia.”

“Any review that has scope to abolish student guilds cannot be conducted with a complete lack of engagement with those bodies”.

“Student guilds are statutory bodies that have been completely unrepresented in the panel membership, while University management is an overwhelming majority”.

The review will consider enhancing the student experience a key point in potential restructures and will also look at improving financial sustainability, increasing student enrolment, and attracting and retaining high-calibre staff.

The independent reviewers will include Sandra Harding, Peter Shergold, Ian Watt, and John Williams. Williams is an executive dean at the University of Adelaide, which is set to merge with SA’s other public university, the University of South Australia, in 2026.

The report is due to be handed down in the second half of 2023.

 

Image Source: UWA_Winthrop_Hall_2014.jpg by Kristina D.C. Hoeppner is licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0

 

 
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