Senate inquiry stalls radical university reforms

Plans by Australia’s federal government for a radical overhaul of the higher education system have been put on hold while a Senate committee investigates the implications of the so-called ‘reforms’.

The Higher Education and Research Reform Amendment Bill will be reviewed by the Senate’s education and employment legislation committee.

Welcoming the move, the National Tertiary Education Union said the inquiry would expose Education Minister Christopher Pyne’s policy agenda.

The union said Pyne’s plans would “undermine the fundamental characteristic of Australia’s public higher education system – where access is based on a student’s academic ability and not their capacity to pay”.

According to union President Jeannie Rea: “Evidence to be presented to the committee will show that the government’s 20% cut to university grants will impact heavily on regional and outer metropolitan universities, which are most reliant on government funding and they will be constrained in their ability to compensate for lost revenue by increasing student fees.”

She said the senate committee would discover that cuts to research training funding, and the introduction of tuition fees for higher degree research students, would make pursuing an academic or research career “even more unattractive for Australia’s brightest students”.

Likewise, the opening of government-supported student places to private, for-profit providers would undermine the financial viability of some public universities.

“The inquiry will provide an opportunity for the supporters of these changes to present credible evidence to allay the legitimate concerns of the bulk of the Australian community who are firmly opposed to the changes,” Rea said.

“It will also present Australia’s vice-chancellors with the opportunity to categorically rule out the possibility of A$100,000 [US$93,400] degrees as a result of Pyne’s proposal to remove the cap on university fees.”

Research universities support deregulation

In its just published September newsletter, the Group of Eight research-intensive universities says that although the bill will most likely be amended by the Senate, it is nevertheless essential for “sustaining fair access, improving quality and widening choice for students”.

How those outcomes will be generated by allowing universities to set their own tuition charges, with the top institutions able to set far higher fees than students currently pay, leaves critics bemused.

But the Group of Eight claims that a “default to the status quo would see rapid erosion of quality and reputation, constrain opportunities for students, and risk undermining Australia’s competitiveness, not least in export of services".

“These are very high stakes for Australia. If we miss the opportunity now to make the breakthrough that will open up expansive new opportunities, we will fail our future generations.”

The group says Australia is rapidly slipping behind global rivals in the competition for international students “and the attraction of mobile talent”, as well as in its investment in research and development.

It argues that all the key groups involved in Australian higher education support the core of the government’s reforms while also sharing concerns about “certain aspects of the reform”.

Because government funding is unlikely to expand at a rate sufficient to match the growth in student demand without diminution of quality, the group says it will become increasingly necessary “to tap the potential of private sources of financing for higher education consumption and investment”.

But those private sources of income presumably refer to the students themselves, who almost certainly face big increases in tuition fees to make up for the shortfall in government funding.

Student groups have already held protest meetings in cities across Australia and they will no doubt be making strong submissions to the Senate committee protesting against the impact the government’s proposed changes will have on them and on the students of the future.

The senate committee will report on its findings before the end of October.