A stronger focus on investment in retention and completion of higher education is required, Education Base Funding Review Chair, Dr Jane Lormax-Smith told a CEDA forum in Adelaide.
"Universities are the most important feature of our social fabric - they drive development of professional skills, provide a cultural landscape, [arena for] public debate and argument, and engage people in creativity, innovation and improve productivity," she said.
The system should be transparent, consistent and retain autonomy, with fees that do not create barriers for students, she said.
Dr Lormax-Smith highlighted the following suggestions made in the review to improve the higher education system:
However, she warned that if we continue to have systemic underfunding in universities, accompanied by a demand led system, with cost charges that don't match the cost of courses, it poses a major risk.
"If you encourage more young people to go to university and have targets and expansion (in the higher education sector), it is inevitable that the types of students that go (to university) will have lower ATAR scores, will be less well prepared, have less social capital and you have a major risk in terms of efficiency as they will churn through the system and drop out," she said.
"You need extra financial support because if you invest in the first year of university, students from disadvantaged backgrounds with low ATARs can survive to become graduates and successful in the community."
Dr Lormax-Smith also addressed the controversial issue of funding for base research capability and our nations skills shortage, highlighting that universities receive funding from the government to provide teaching that is informed by research.
"If you are a non-university provider, without the protocols telling you you have to do research, then the government should pay you less," she said.
"We need non-university providers because in areas of skills shortages, like teaching or nursing, we need those skills to be developed, but our argument in the report was that they should receive less funding in those areas of activity."
Dr Lormax-Smith stated the Government has already committed the following to expand the system but more action is need:
University of South Australia, Vice Chancellor and President, Professor Peter Hoj echoed the need to have a greater focus on investment and return.
"People with a higher education turbo charge the economy and enhances productivity levels and that creates opportunities for others, even people who don't have an education," he said.
Professor Hoj said universities must be internationally competitive and more investment must also be made in the school system to ensure students are prepared for university.
More money is needed to expand foundation studies programs to ensure students were properly prepared for tertiary studies with time management skills, resilience and the capacity for self-directed learning, he said.
The State Government, a significant beneficiary of a strong university system, should provide a greater share of funding to the sector as it had a stake in ensuring that young people choosing a university will want to stay in South Australia, he said.
Professor Hoj disagreed with the Base Funding Review's finding that it should cost no more to fund post graduate students than graduates, because "post graduate students need to be educated at a higher level and this requires smaller classes and higher qualified staff."
The Review emphasised that fees should reflect the cost of providing the courses. Without this, fees for high demand courses were likely to rise prohibitively and less popular courses would be cut, he said.
University of Adelaide, Deputy Vice Chancellor and Vice President (Academic), Professor Pasquale Questor emphasised the economic advantage additional funding can have to the higher education system.
"The sector has delivered strong growth, [yet] it can be a sector which is volatile so relying on the export dollar may be too risky a situation. Fundamental productivity gains from investing in education is actually benefiting the individual through their earning capacity, and benefiting the economy through the input of them earning more, consuming more and contributing more," she said.
On social disadvantage, Professor Questor highlighted that having more educated people results in society operating better as it "provides an articulate debate because citizens can see things from different perspectives and can be critical thinkers."