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Australia: “Super-ministry” announced, and new tuition fee levels under consideration

Australia’s prime minister, Julia Gillard, announced a significant cabinet reshuffling in Sydney on 12 December 2011. This effort includes the creation of a “super-ministry” in the form of a Department of Industry, Innovation, Science, Research and Tertiary Education. The new entity will be led by two cabinet ministers. Greg Combet will be responsible for industry and innovation, while Chris Evans – until recently the Minister for Tertiary Education, Skills, Jobs and Workplace Relations – will cover the science, research and tertiary education portfolio.

According to Prime Minister Gillard, the combined ministry will allow for “better links” between the various fields covered by the new department. The ministry’s purview is also set to include “international education”, given the perceived importance of the international dimension to Australia’s higher education and vocational education sectors.

In terms of specific agenda items, Minister Evans may soon need to turn his attention towards a brewing student tuition fees debate. On 8 December, the government released the final report of the Higher Education Base Funding Review. The panel responsible for the report was charged with making recommendation on the principles for the country’s public investment in higher education and exploring the question of appropriate funding levels to ensure Australia’s international competitiveness in this area. Their main finding? All students in Australian higher education should pay in the way of fees a uniform 40% of total course costs. Currently, there is wide variability in the sector, with students paying anywhere from 30% (in fields such as nursing and dentistry), to 52% (in the humanities), to 80% (e.g. in law and accounting studies). Student groups are unhappy with this result, but it remains to be seen if the government will adopt the recommendation. Targeted consultations with stakeholders will be conducted in February and March 2012, which will serve to inform the government’s final response, due in the second half of the year.

Office of the Prime Minister of Australia Department of Education, Employment and Workplace Relations