By Marcia Devlin
When they were in opposition, the now Australian government promised they would make no cuts to education if elected. But that was before the election, you see. Now they have been elected, they are proposing a twenty percent cut to base funding for universities. It’s after the election now and things are very, very different. The main difference I can see is that opposition are now the government.
While in ‘proposal’ form at the time of writing, this cut will almost certainly go ahead. The government have also proposed a significant increase in the interest rate for the loans Australian students take out to pay their contribution to their study costs through the Higher Education Contribution Scheme. This increase and related changes will deter some students from studying at all; will create lifelong and crippling debt for many graduates; and will have a particularly adverse effect on women graduates who take time out to have and raise children while their study loan debt compounds. There is almost universal opposition to this component of the government’s suit of proposals so its trajectory is less certain.
The government have also proposed the deregulation of fees for study. Fee deregulation has gone so smoothly in the UK, you see, and resulted in such an improvement in fairness, equity, quality and all-round happiness for everyone that they simply could not let the opportunity to do this in Australia pass. Oh, wait … maybe that’s not why we’re doing it. I can’t remember …
I remember now. The government are de-regulating fees because they have to provide a mechanism for universities to try to make up for the twenty percent cut in funding that they promised they wouldn’t make. But now they’re making the cut (see first paragraph for an explanation of why this cut is happening), they are just trying to help.
The Group of Eight universities (equivalent to the Russell Group in the UK) are happy enough with this component of the government’s proposals. Well-off domestic and international students will continue to flock to these universities and seek to benefit from the reputation that comes with high entry cut-offs and research performance.
Others are not so pleased. My own university belongs to the Regional Universities Network (RUN) and we are very worried about relatively poor country folk passing on university study to avoid the double-whammy of loss of income while studying followed by significant debt and loan repayments. In terms of financing, we won’t be able to charge the high fees the elite universities will charge (even if our teaching quality is consistently judged to be very high) because people who live in regional and rural areas in Australia generally can’t afford to pay such fees. The RUN is seeking a ‘regional adjustment package’ to ensure that member universities don’t have to close programs to cut costs or, in the worst case scenarios, close for business because it’s impossible to continue to operate in the new ‘market’ effectively while grossly underfunded.
The proposed changes were introduced into the Australian Parliament a couple of weeks ago, were sent to a Senate committee almost immediately and are now under consideration. A modified package is the expected outcome but we will need to wait for the details.
Professor Marcia Devlin is the Deputy Vice-Chancellor (Learning and Quality) at Federation University Australia and an SRHE Fellow.