By James Glenday
Federal Education Minister Christopher Pyne says he supports allowing universities to compete on price, in what is the strongest indication yet that the Government is moving towards deregulating university fees.
In a speech to a private audience at Monash University, Mr Pyne said the nation’s higher education institutions would struggle to join the ranks of the world’s best universities until changes were made.
“Our best universities have limited prospects of competing with the best in the world, and will be overtaken by the fast developing universities of Asia”, Mr Pyne said in extracts of the speech released beforehand.
“If universities and colleges were able to compete on price, it would mean … a greater focus on meeting the needs of students.”
He said “achieving this would require government to change the way it treats universities and colleges, and to give them more freedom to do what they do best”.
The Government has been discussing ways of deregulating university fees, and expanding the current demand-driven funding model to private higher education providers.
It is a move firmly backed by the nation’s biggest research universities, the Group of Eight, who want educators to charge much higher fees in order to improve the quality of research and teaching.
“The rest of the world is adapting while Australia is constrained by an out-of-date funding system,” Mr Pyne said.
“The best higher education system in the world would give universities and colleges greater control over their budgets and their capacity to attract and keep students.”
However, he says the Government would need to strengthen the current student loans scheme, taking into account the differences between private higher education providers and universities.
“It would be appropriate for Commonwealth-supported places in non-university providers to be funded at a lower rate than in universities.
“Opportunities for students must continue to be provided without them having to pay a dollar up front.”
Mr Pyne’s car was targeted by student protesters as he left the Monash campus after his speech.
The students chased down and hit the car as it drove away.
Student group warns of massive fee increases
Any overhaul is likely to face stiff opposition, with the Labor Party, unions, and student groups all warning the move would lead to a massive increase in student fees.
The National Union of Students (NUS) says the future of higher education in Australia will be at risk if the Government moves to deregulate fees.
NUS president Deanna Taylor says higher fees would turn many young people off a university education.
“If you’re a young person and you’re looking at going to university and the cost of getting a degree is around the $90,000 to $100,000 mark it’s going to be a real deterrent, particularly if you are from a low socio-economic background,” she said.
“Competition doesn’t drive prices down, competition doesn’t make the service you’re receiving any higher quality, it simply means the people who are consuming those services are ripped off and are not getting an adequate return on what they’re paying for.
“We don’t want to see higher education turn that way,” she said.
Mr Pyne, whose appearance on the ABC’s Q&A program on Monday night was interrupted by a student protest, may find it difficult to get the sign-off from the Palmer United Party in the Senate.
Nationals MP Mark Coulton will not speculate on the Government’s budget position but says higher education is already extremely expensive for country students.
“I’ll be keeping a close eye out to make sure whatever goes in place doesn’t further disadvantage country students,” he said.
“It would be a real battle for them if they had to pay a lot more … and if there wasn’t appropriate support, particularly for living costs.
“It is a tough call though because we also need to fix the budget.”
Opposition spokesman for education Kim Carr has slammed the Government’s proposed overhaul, saying it will create a system where only the rich can afford a degree.
“This is not just a change, this is a fundamental undermining of the principles on which Australia has built a very strong education system for the people of this country,” Senator Carr said.