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Degree of equity needed for universities

WA has four State-owned universities and one private campus.

All offer fee-paying places to overseas students, thereby boosting WA’s foreign exchange earnings.

Curtin University vice-chancellor Professor Lance Twomey high-lighted this during a recent address to members of the Association for Tertiary Education Management (ATEM).

“The $400 million generated annually by international education in WA is rarely mentioned by ministers when speaking about the State’s trade figures, although it is hoped that the new State Govern-ment will rectify this situation,” he said.

The overlooked education exports are one of WA’s major commercial success stories.

Professor Twomey was correct in saying political leaders ought to highlight this, for it represented more than $200 earned by each West Aussie annually.

Perth now has 78,000 full and part-time university students, including 16,000 from overseas. Our campuses employ 3600 academics and 4500 non-academic staffers.

Where Professor Twomey fell down was that he used his address to begin lobbying for taxpayer funding because, he alleged, eastern states campuses were threatening this relatively new sector.

In this he won the backing of ATEM president Chris Jeffery, who said he’d lobby senior Government MPs.

But under such reasoning, other exporters qualify for handouts whenever competitors appear on a horizon.

Would he contend the Government should outlay taxpayer funds to prop-up Woodside Petroleum Ltd – which has a better export record than WA campuses – whenever overseas gas suppliers threaten North-West Shelf sales?

Would he argue our gold, iron ore, or diamond exporters should qualify for handouts because of growing international or interstate comp-etition?

State budgets aren’t big enough.

Professor Twomey has forgotten the Burke Government eyed off his sector during Labor’s wasteful WA Inc days with the creation of the controversial State enterprise, Exim Corporation.

Critics of Exim, which thankfully was scrapped, rightly said campuses would do better marketing themselves – something they’ve successfully done.

Professor Twomey’s campus, for instance, services nearly 10,000 overseas students from whom it earns millions of dollars.

He’d have been wiser to have focused on a real and longstanding injustice which affects WA’s tertiary education sector, one Curtin’s students have endured for decades.

But, like the success of education exports, it’s rarely mentioned.

The Auditor-General’s Report on Public University and TAFE Colleges shows outlays per student last year were: Curtin $14,110; Edith Cowan $10,039; Murdoch $8,433; and UWA $20,162.

Why, one may ask, should Murdoch and Edith Cowan students on average have less than half spent on their education than UWA students?

Why didn’t Professor Twomey highlight that Curtin’s students, on average, have $6000 less spent on them than UWA’s?

This is inequity in large print. There are reasons for it, not least that UWA focuses on many expensive courses – agriculture, engineering and sciences – to a greater degree that other campuses.

But there’s another reason, dating back to the origins of WA tertiary education, to the years just after UWA was established.

On being created, UWA, rightly in my view, received large land endowments from State Parliament.

Consequently, UWA today is a hugely wealthy campus, for the WA public made it thus through generous early land endowments created to help fund all West Aussies seeking higher education.

But students at Curtin, Murdoch, and Edith Cowan – campuses established after UWA – are denied access to the ongoing funds generated from those early 20th century parliamentary land endowments. It’s an injustice people like Professor Twomey should seek to rectify.

And we have an apt precedent, the Tamala Park Land Transfer Bill, now before Parliament.

In 1981 the former old Perth City Council (PCC), and Wanneroo and Stirling Councils, paid $5 million for a 430ha tract at Mindarie for waste disposal.

When the Court Government split the PCC into four municipalities in 1994 its share all went to the new Perth City, meaning the ratepayers in the Towns of Cambridge, Victoria Park and Vincent missed out, even though they’d also paid.

Twenty years on, the Tamala land is worth about $80 million.

The three deprived councils rightly claimed they were in-equitably treated, so Labor promised to rectify this when in power. The Tamala Park Land Transfer Bill sets out to do this.

If equity can be belatedly instituted over a rubbish dump, surely we can do it with the educating of our youth.

However, if sharing UWA’s endowment revenues is deemed to be too draconian, Professor Twomey and his Murdoch and Edith Cowan counterparts should lobby for separate land endowments.

There’s even a relatively recent precedent for that.

When Notre Dame University was launched in 1990, a Labor Govern-ment endowed it with a huge tract of prime beach land at Alkimos.

Although that decision was later reversed, it shows what can be done if equity was sought for WA’s three youngest state campuses.

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Students

6th-Australian Institute of Management WA20,000
7th-Murdoch University16,584
8th-South Regional TAFE10,549
9th-Central Regional TAFE10,000
10th-The University of Notre Dame Australia6,708
47 tertiary education & training providers ranked by total number of students in WA

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