WORD OF MOUTH Down Under

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Labour Day?

It's the 1st of May - Labour Day possibly in more senses than one. By the time you read this I shall be winging my way back from the other side of the globe and should touch down at Heathrow in time for a final sprint to my local polling station. I've been in Sydney for my son's wedding. Paul has made a reputation for himself teaching blue-chip executives and PhD students how to improve their presentation and marketing techniques. At the same time I took a squint at Australia's higher education scene and found some familiar echoes.

Dearing goes West

Britain awaits the findings of the Dearing inquiry into higher education and the Saintly Sir Ron is expected to produce it soon after today's election has put one or other new government into Westminster. Australia has its own Dearing, though there can be no real comparison between the two. Roderick West used to be headmaster of an independent boys' secondary school and, according to academics, "has stepped out of the Ark". As he floats from university to university with his little band of merry officials, he is not endearing himself (no pun intended) to vice-chancellors who find him singularly myopic about higher education. But he has insisted on visiting each of 45 campuses over the past two months, speaking to everyone in sight. He apparently doesn't believe in vocational degree courses. Not even law? Medicine? Dentistry? I can hardly wait for the report, due in November.

Recruiting gimmicks

Lunched with Jane Richardson, editor of the excellent Australian Higher Education Supplement which has reported the latest row among academics. Some universities and colleges have earned a bad name in Asia because of their many recruitment gimmicks. Ruses include the offer of free used cars and charging only two fees for three enrolments. Some by-pass entry requirements as long as students are able to pay, thus attracting the charge of "selling" their degrees. Last month, Queensland set up an international Education Consultant Association to uphold quality control in addition to the code of ethical practice already drawn up by the Australian Committee of Vice-Chancellors. A neat and perfectly honourable gimmick has come from Murdoch University, whose campus is to open a petrol station, a retirement village and a cinema complex. That should attract a few students.

Russell & Sandstone

The University of Western Australia is contemplating a proposal to charge next year's dental students a cool A$100,000 (pounds 50,000). But none of the ideas of that kind will be easy to implement. There are many opponents among vice-chancellors and academics alike, to say nothing of students, who find the plan preposterous and intend to oppose it in the usual student manner.

The federal government has ordered higher education to make reductions of A$680m (pounds 340m). So what can the poor Oz varsities do? They've got to save the cash somehow. Yes, you've guessed. Cutbacks galore are in store - and redundancies. At Sydney University alone, I hear, at least 300 posts are under threat - which makes the 50 redundancies being contemplated at Nottingham University appear almost tame. Here every university faces many scores of redundancies and, as a direct result, larger classes, poorer student-staff ratios and, no doubt, decidedly lower morale among staff and students alike.

And finally

There are mixed feelings about Senator Amanda Vanstone, the Secretary of State for Employment, Education, Training and Youth. Women seem to like her because she is a bit like Maggie Thatcher when she was in charge of education: tough yet good-humoured. Men dislike this toughness. She stands with hands on hips and calls them "Sport" while waving her anti- politically correct banner. Privately she is known as "The Lipstick Rottweiler".

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