Off and running in the race for funds

02/04/2008 - 22:00

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The starter’s gun has been fired for reinvestment in university education as our leaner and hungrier tertiary institutions prepare for the new federal landscape.

The starter’s gun has been fired for reinvestment in university education as our leaner and hungrier tertiary institutions prepare for the new federal landscape.

There is a significant expectation of increased funding for universities from the new government, after Labor’s high-profile election claims that the Liberals had underinvested for too long and left Australia trailing other developed nations in both teaching and research capacity.

With this brave new world emerging, Bentley-based Curtin University of Technology vice-chancellor, Professor Jeanette Hacket, believes her institution is better positioned than most to take advantage of the changes sweeping the sector.

The underlying basis for this conviction is a strategic approach that most business people would appreciate, and yet would not be considered all that normal for a tertiary educational facility.

Professor Hacket underlines two big changes at Curtin, which she promotes as providing its core strength.

The first is cash reserves.

She said Curtin was in line to report a surplus of about $75 million, matching its 2006 net operating result for the year of $74.8 million.

During the same year UWA, by comparison, had a net operating result of $32.5 million.

At the same time, largely as a result of enforced focus by the previous federal government’s policy, Curtin has decided to stake its claim to four areas of excellence.

While these areas are big – resources, health, ICT and sustainability – and therefore appear a little vague at first glance, Professor Hacket makes the point they are being backed up with significant rearrangement of the university’s course structure.

Curtin is currently undertaking a major review of its 900 courses, anticipating wholesale change for the 2010 academic year.

“We’ll probably end up with about half of those,” Professor Hacket said.

“We’ll reduce the number of courses we offer and make it easier for students to understand what we do.” It’s not hard to imagine how difficult it is to undertake such developments in a university structure that’s radically different from a private sector business.

Professor Hacket admits even just announcing a surplus was a major issue among campus staff, adding that the backing of her management team has been important through this period.

But she’s at pains to point out that cutting courses was not like some razor gang had been let loose on the institution.

“This was a paradigm shift to invest in the future,” Professor Hacket told WA Business News.

Curtin’s strategy is to efficiently focus the funding and staff effort at areas that have been identified as commanding key attention.

In doing so, staff will be retained in the main and should have more time for research in the fields that have been selected.

Curtin has earmarked $26 million to invest in research, an amount that would be applied to the areas of strategic importance.

“We want to increase the amount that we can apply in those areas,” Professor Hacket adds.

“This is a way of improving quality.

There will be more investment for each unit we run.” The specialist nature of the approach can be seen in the university’s approach to technology.

Facing the axe is computer science, where enrolments have dropped off significantly.

Yet the university is focused on investment in the nearby Bentley Technology Park, which is about to be relaunched and expanded as a purely ICT business park.

Professor Hacket said computing specialists from CSIRO would be locating there to support radio astronomy, notably the $2 billion Square Kilometre Array proposal, in which Curtin has a strong interest.

The huge tech park is expected to become a much more densely occupied area, effectively an ICT village covering a significant area.

Of course, it’s not a one-horse race in WA, with UWA also involved in the SKA project and also seeking to put its stamp on the resources sector, where both compete and collaborate across a range of related fields.

Curtin last year announced a $110 million Resources and Chemistry Precinct, with backing from BHP Billiton Ltd.

This year there’s been a $10.7 million mine technologies research initiative with Rio Tinto Ltd as well as a partnership with the Chamber of Minerals and Energy, which last year lost its CEO Tim Shanahan to head up UWA’s resources development.

The Curtin vice-chancellor said the expected increase in federal funding was unlikely to result in a slackening of efforts to capture private sector sponsorship.

The reduction in federal funding during the past 10 years had coincided with increased expenditure overseas both from traditional education providers and new ones, such as Singapore, where Curtin is establishing a new campus with listed education operator Navitas Ltd.

But it was not just the money that counted in the battle for students who were increasingly mobile and had more education options from which to choose.

Private sector cash was often tied to projects or cutting edge research, helping focus the institutions involved on what industry wanted and, in turn, putting the investors closer to the job opportunities modern day students were seeking from study.

“The private sector is critical for us,” Professor Hacket told WA Business News.

“Competition internationally demands that you are seeking resources where ever you can get them.” 

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