There's nothing like a Dame
The privately-owned Catholic university, Notre Dame Australia, has recently been re-designated 'public' for the purposes of Commonwealth funding.
In an unusual move, the Higher Education Funding Act of 1988 was amended in July to add Notre Dame, a private institution created by a WA Act of Parliament in 1989, to the 'Table A' list of universities which are entitled to receive taxpayer funding. The other private institutions, Bond University, the Melbourne College of Divinity, and the Seventh Day Adventist Avondale College, remain classified as 'Table B'. Table B providers are essentially self funded.
The move follows a succession of changes in legislation by State and Federal Governments, which effectively blurs the boundaries between private and public in the taxpayer-subsidised tertiary sector.
When Notre Dame was set up in 1989, the Act specified the institution was private and not entitled to public money, nor was it entitled to borrow. In 1992, the University suffered a financial set back. This was was followed by a change in the WA Act, allowing the Minister for Education to loan money to the University for the purposes of capital works.
In 1998 there was a further change, which empowered the WA Minister for Education to borrow from WA Treasury, as well as other sources, for the benefit of Notre Dame University. The WA Treasurer was enabled to go guarantor for such loans.
Notre Dame was also permitted to borrow or reborrow money as it saw fit.
The West Australian Minister for Education has not responded to requests for details of any governmental loans or other borrowings to Notre Dame.
In 1999, Notre Dame successfully applied for Commonwealth funding for its Broome campus on the basis that it was offering national priority services to indigenous Australians.
In 2000, Notre Dame sought and received tri-ennial public funding on the basis that it offered training in national priority areas of teaching and nursing.
This year, Notre Dame announced its proposed Sydney Campus which is to have as its centrepiece Schools of Law and of Medicine. However, neither Law nor Medicine are areas of designated national priority. In an apparent sweetheart deal, the Prime Minister in August this year allocated a total of 200 places and $4m to the project - even though Notre Dame University has not at this stage any experience in running a medical school and there are existing courses in law, nursing and teaching in other Sydney universities.
The Archdiocese of Sydney contributed $20m in land and buildings and $5m in cash.
Professor Tannock is overseas and was unable to comment on the University's shift to Table A status and guaranteed funding by taxpayers. However in new edition of the University's magazine, In Principio, he writes:
"(The Sydney campus) is a very challenging and very exciting project which will do much for Notre Dame as a whole. We anticipate Fremantle students being given the opportunity to study in Sydney and, vice versa. We also believe that the Sydney Campus will be very appealing to international students, particularly our US partners. The leaders of the University of Notre Dame in the United States have expressed great enthusiasm for it."
Online Catholics contacted Notre Dame in the United States for comment. Matthew V. Storin, Associate Vice President for News and Information and Concurrent Professor of American Studies, replied in the following terms:
"Notre Dame University United States does not have a medical school, so our people would not have particular expertise in this area.
"It is my understanding that when the Australian university was being planned, various officials came to the U.S. and met with administrators here for guidance etc. We maintain friendly relations, (but) the University of Notre Dame (U.S.) has no official relationship with the University of Notre Dame in Australia."
There are concerns that the combination of public money and the 'borrowed prestige' of Notre Dame United States may permit interested parties to begin to create a two-tiered tertiary education system. Vice Chancellor of Edith Cowan University, Prof. Millicent Poole, said last year that the introduction of such a system was of concern because it will lead to a situation similar to that which exists in the secondary system.
"It is not exactly a degeneration, but the State school system has slipped, at least in the mind of the public. It once had a very high reputatation for being the best system. But now the public perception is that paying for private is better. With that, we have seen a flight from State schools into private," Prof. Poole said.
"By bolstering private universities such as Notre Dame, the Federal Government may be elevating an elite and select band of institutions at the expense of the public universities."
The Australian newspaper revealed last month that nearly 50 full-fee degrees would cost more than $100,000 from next year and one in three degrees would not be covered by a $50,000 loan scheme.
Federal Minister Brendan Nelson was campaigning in Brisbane this week. He did not respond to Online Catholics request to comment on the re-categorizing of Notre Dame University.
No Catholic group contacted was prepared to comment publicly on this matter. But the Social Action Office of the Conference of Religious Leaders in Brisbane has has one of its key priorites the intention to promote "right relationships" between people.
In its election platform statement, the SAO writes: "In our struggle to build a world based on "right relationships", we must ensure that the principles of access and equity are central in public policy," the group says.