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Health cuts still hurt

UNIVERSITY funding cutbacks dating back to the mid-1990s are denying WA students the option of studying some clinical health degree courses at home, a high-profile health sciences professor said this week.

But Curtin University of Technology executive dean health sciences, Charles Watson, who made the claim, said talks were under way to rectify the problem, common to most less-populated Australian States.

Professor Watson said a 1995 decision to no longer fund incremental salary increases had meant a 30 per cent cut in funding, placing a significant burden on university schools offering courses in small clinical areas.

The costs for clinical courses were much higher than, for example, arts courses, and universities had been subsidising existing courses by transferring funds from other courses and schools.

After eight years of subsidising its undergraduate podiatry program, Curtin had now decided to close the course to new students, even though student interest and industry demand have been in balance in WA, Professor Watson said.

This was not the first small clinical course to have been disbanded by Curtin, he said.

In 1998, the university closed its audiology program, subsequently picked up by the University of Western Australia.

The same fate would have befallen the dental hygiene and therapy program had it not been for Health Department subsidies, Dr Watson said.

Half the podiatry courses in New Zealand had been shut down recently and similar decisions were being considered by universities across Australia.

Twelve of the smaller clinical areas – including radiation oncology and medical imaging – were in danger across Australia, Professor Watson said.

“The funding issue does not just matter for endangered courses,” he said.

“It includes what is not offered in WA.”

The reason WA was without optometry degree courses was because everyone had concluded these, too, were not viable without subsidisation, he said.

“We can’t continue with the present situation,” Professor Watson said. “But we’re not washing our hands of it.”

A hub satellite situation out of Sydney or Melbourne was one likely option for the future, Professor Watson said.

This was already done successfully in some parts of North America.

With this type of arrangement, a clinical school could be established in a major centre, out of which satellite courses could be offered throughout Australia.

Professor Watson has already held a number of discussions with health sciences deans from other universities and the Commonwealth Health Department on this and other possible arrangements.

The satellite plan would require approval from the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission because it would currently be regarded as collusion, Professor Watson said.

However, this was not expected to be a problem.

Optometrist Association of WA executive officer David Stephens said studies had shown there were enough optometry graduates in Australia, at present.

“We do need a school in WA, but not this year,” Mr Stephens said.

WA imports graduates from Brisbane, Melbourne and Sydney, at present, but when a seat of optometry is warranted in WA, the association will be ready to back it, Mr Stephens said.

A University of Western Australia spokesperson said UWA planned to continue with its audiology course.

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