By Geoff Maslen
Tomorrow’s federal budget could provide some unwelcome surprises for the nation’s 39 public universities. Geoff Maslen reports.
With Australia’s spending higher education expected to exceed $25 billion this year, it is likely to be a cost-saving target in tomorrow’s federal budget and changes seem likely to cheer vice-chancellors, alarm their academics and outrage the nation’s 1 million university students.
Students are anticipating the worst and a vocal group disrupted Education Minister Christopher Pyne’s appearance on the ABC’s Q&A program last week, protesting at probable tuition fee increases, higher HECS charges and faster repayment rates.
After the program resumed, Mr Pyne refused to comment on the budget but said he wanted to adapt the best of the American system for Australia, notably its teaching-only colleges that often prepared students for university. It was clear, however, he had accepted the government’s Commission of Audit conclusion that Australian students paid too little towards the cost of their courses.
”Students contribute only 40 per cent of the total cost of their courses with the other 60 per cent paid by the taxpayer,” Mr Pyne said – and he repeated the assertion in a speech about the government’s higher education plans at Monash University last Thursday.
In fact, the proportion that students pay actually varies from 29-84 per cent depending on the course. But the implication is that the budget will impose higher tuition fees under the HECS loan program, now called FEE-HELP.
Graduates will have to pay off their loans faster if the government lowers the income threshold that triggers repayments. Real interest charges could be added for the first time or an ”administrative fee” imposed that would increase student debt by 10-25 per cent.
An analysis by the National Tertiary Education Union estimates that lowering the repayment threshold could save the government $1.5 billion a year but add $10,000 to the average HECS amount owed by a graduating student. The union warned the day of $100,000 university degrees could not be far off.
The government’s Commission of Audit proposed that the income repayment threshold be dropped to the minimum wage – nearly $20,000 below the current $51,000. While it seems likely the government will lower the threshold it may only be $10,000 less, but still resulting in students who drop out before finishing their degrees having to repay their HECS debt when previously they might not have hit the threshold.
Many of the government’s goals for higher education were revealed soon after the Coalition won last September’s election. One of the first was to be a review of Labor’s demand-driven system, introduced by Julia Gillard in 2012 to remove federal limits on university enrolments, thereby adding another 114,000 tertiary students over the past two years.
Mr Pyne had listed the review as one of his top three priorities, along with a plan to revive Australia’s international education market and another to cut tertiary sector red tape. He also confirmed the government would scrap Labor’s targets to lift participation by disadvantaged students and abolish the student services and amenities fee – repeating the old Liberal refrain that this was ”compulsory student unionism by the back door”.
For the review, Mr Pyne appointed two right-wing warriors: Dr David Kemp, a former deeply conservative Liberal education minister, and his then higher education adviser Andrew Norton, now at the private Grattan Institute.
Their report found universities had responded well to the demand-driven challenges and had improved access for all students. Endorsing its adoption, the reviewers noted the new system had allowed universities to be more responsive to student needs, driven innovation and lifted quality.
Among the 17 recommendations, however, the Kemp-Norton report called for government funding to be extended to include private universities and non-university degree providers such as TAFE colleges.
Mr Pyne basically announced this at Monash and it could add dozens more institutions, including those that aim to make a profit, to the 39 public universities the government currently funds. With possibly another 10,000-plus students boosting the current 1 million the government supports, federal outlays would rise by more than $650 million. This could mean slashing spending in the budget or increasing student fees.
University Australia, the public universities’ main lobby group, had earlier warned that bringing non-university institutions into the fold could have ”a devastating impact”. But, in a startling reversal last week, a plenary session of the UA agreed to drop its opposition provided ”the integrity and reputation of Australia’s quality higher education system” was maintained and that current spending on public universities was retained.
”The relative funding of universities compared with non-university higher education providers should also take account of the obligation of universities to invest in research, public good and community engagement activities,” the UA decided. A comment Mr Pyne agreed with in his Monash speech.
A senior education official told The Age that the UA’s switch would give Mr Pyne ”hope of securing the support of cabinet that he needs”. His prediction was the government would cut its funding for students by $1.5 billion over four years while also making grants available to all accredited providers.
”Different providers may charge whatever the domestic market will bear, with some requirements on universities that lift tuition prices to increase support for needy students,” the official added.
In his Monash speech, Mr Pyne said ”more competition between higher education providers would be good for students. If universities and colleges were able to compete on price, it would mean they must have a greater focus on meeting the needs of students. They would need to continuously improve the teaching and learning they offer to attract students…”
Although Tony Abbott had promised before the election that tuition fees would not be deregulated, Mr Pyne’s promise of more competition could extend to vice-chancellors again imposing their own charges on top of HECS. This is what students in the Q&A audience claimed, saying the top universities could raise fees to levels only the wealthiest students or their families could afford.
Professor Ian Young, vice-chancellor of the Australian National University and chairman of the elite Group of Eight universities, said the group supported extending the demand-driven system to private universities and other non-government institutions.
”As the Go8 has been arguing, Australia needs a more diverse higher education sector to meet growing and diversifying student demand. Greater diversity among providers will give students more choice, and will more effectively meet their differing interests and needs.”
But NTEU president Jeannie Rea said students would bear the cost ”of the government’s ideological obsession and blind faith in a market-based policy framework for higher education”.
”The evidence of Victoria’s market-based VET policy clearly indicates that [opening government funding to other institutions] will be an unmitigated disaster,” she said. (Sydney Morning Herald)