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Australia: Regional unis feel the heat from budget changes

Australian Universities

As students hold a day of protest against changes to higher education, regional universities have spoken out against the budget, fearing they and their students will be out in the cold.

Prime Minister Tony Abbott and his education minister Christopher Pyne were forced to abandon a visit to Deakin University in Geelong, Victoria, over security concerns as protests kicked off on campuses around the country.

Regional universities and students, in particular, fear they will be disadvantaged by the changes which will allow universities to set their own course fees from January 2016. Students are also facing changes to government assistance with the threshold of when they need to repay HELP debt lowered and the interest rate increased.

Jack Boyd, who is the national small and regional campus officer with the National Union of Students and a member of Young Labor, is a fourth year law student at the University of Wollongong. He says the budget changes will put increased pressure on regional students who are already disadvantaged when it comes to cost of living pressures and travel costs.

However Andrew Norton, higher education program director at the Grattan Institute who was appointed to a federal government review of the higher education funding system last year, believes that while university fees will most likely be higher under deregulation, it will make the sector more competitive and ensure students can get best value for money. He is also pleased the government has included TAFEs and other vocational providers in the system of government assisted loans.

Professor Peter Lee is chair of the Regional Universities Network which represents six regional universities, and is the vice-chancellor of Southern Cross University. He says while regional universities might be able to position themselves as a more affordable alternative once deregulation comes in, he fears the cost of university education for many regional university students, including the large number who are mature age, might dissuade them from pursuing further education.

Professor Lee is also concerned that the federal government has cut funding to courses by an average of 20 per cent, meaning some universities may have to rethink the subjects and courses they can provide in the future.

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