The cavernous gallery echoes with distant voices. I stare, mesmerised by an angelic face, still and perfect. A girl with alabaster skin and golden locks, lying encased as if she were asleep, only with vacant, dead eyes. Paralysed mice surround her fragile form. The scene is at the same time repulsive and captivating – a reaction not uncommon to the artwork on display at the Museum of Old and New Art in Hobart, known as MONA. The Mice and Me is the latest work from New York based artist Meghan Boody. According to Boody it represents self-transformation – a poignant theme to consider as we move to the conference dinner in the restaurant upstairs.

Earlier this month I attended the Australian Higher Education Industry Association (AHEIA) conference in Hobart. The theme for the event: Shaping Workplace Culture. Key decision makers from Universities all over Australia joined together to share their collective experience and collaborate on strategies to address contemporary challenges faced by the sector. For me, the overriding theme that emerged over the three days was a transformation in the education sector – AHEIA couldn’t have chosen a better venue than MONA to reflect that.

In recruitment, timing is everything. The AHEIA conference coincided with the release of what is now being touted as the most unpopular budget delivered by an Australian government in the last 20 years. So while Universities and TAFE colleges have suffered the pain of funding cuts and associated internal budget pressure only recently, the higher education sector is now sitting on the brink of some of the most fundamental changes since the inception of the Higher Education Contribution Scheme (HECS) in 1989.

Reduced funding with fierce competition amongst institutions for a smaller share of it is disturbing. The Abbott government’s plan is to alleviate these pressures by uncapping the fees that institutions can charge students. At the same time, the government will be reducing its contribution to course fees. If successful, “these reforms will fundamentally alter the shape of Australian higher education,” says Belinda Robinson, Chief Executive of Universities Australia in a recent press release.

While there are concerns on both sides of politics about disadvantaged students and the implications of the Higher Education Loan Program (HELP), it looks like there’s no stopping the transformation to a new culture of deregulated course fees, reduced government investment and further privatisation. Certainly the tertiary sector is about to undergo some of the most significant change it has faced in decades, and there’s no doubt these changes will continue to generate lively debate.

Professional gambler and entrepreneur David Walsh created a legacy when he built MONA. It’s controversial and confronting artwork caused a sensation, rejuvenating cultural tourism to Tasmania. But the highly awarded museum would not exist without a bold vision. Charles Darwin said, “It is not the strongest of the species that survives, nor the most intelligent that survives. It is the one that is most adaptable to change.” Observing the thought provoking interactions which took place at the AHEIA conference, it’s clear to me that the stage is set for some potentially exciting reforms within the higher education sector.

Featured image: MONA Museum by Rob Taylor, Creative Commons licence and copyright