Government desperate to have reforms adopted

A leading Australian vice-chancellor has broken ranks with his colleagues and condemned the federal government for its radical plans for higher education. Professor Stephen Parker, head of the University of Canberra, says that if the government’s reform bill is passed by the Senate, Australia will be “sleepwalking towards the privatisation of its universities”.

“And ironically they will be the death knell of our peak group, Universities Australia, which could not survive them for long,” Parker writes in a feature to be published in Sunday’s edition of University World News.

Although Universities Australia had serious reservations with the government’s initial attempts at reform, including its plans to allow universities to set their own fees, it has now called on the Senate to support the bill with several amendments.

Federal parliament closes down for the summer on Friday and the Abbott government has tried desperately to have its reforms passed by the Senate but appears to have failed. The minor parties holding the balance of power were unresponsive to the government’s pleas and the legislation will now have to wait till February before trying to resolve the funding crisis facing the nation’s public universities.

Under the act passed by the House of Representatives but strongly opposed by the Labor Party, universities would have been free to set their own fees from 2016 – leading to student fears that a degree would soon cost more than A$100,000 (US$84,000). In addition, the government planned to impose a higher interest rate on federal loans for students and, for the first time, charge fees for those undertaking postgraduate research degrees.

Universities would also have suffered an average cut of 20% in federal grants while government spending would have been extended to include private colleges, and technical and vocational education institutes offering degrees and diplomas. This would certainly have further reduced the amount of money available to the public universities.

The radical reforms were not only unexpected, they were also contrary to what Prime Minister Tony Abbott had promised while he was leader of the Opposition. Had both houses approved the bill, it would have led to the biggest changes in Australian higher education since the introduction of the Higher Education Contribution Scheme, or HECS, 25 years ago.

In a series of concessions this week, Education Minister Christopher Pyne said the government would leave student debts pegged to cost of living increases, rather than the higher government bond rate, and introduce a five-year interest rate pause for students who were new parents.

Pyne has proved to be one of the worst conservative education ministers in recent history. A bumptious and cocky little man, he made few attempts to explain or justify the government’s plans and introduced legislation that was widely opposed by academics, students and the great majority of Australians.

Although called “reforms”, the changes are intended to cut government spending on higher education and shift a greater share of the cost onto students and their parents. This would have saved the government an estimated A$4 billion a year and the failure to get the bill passed makes an already difficult financial situation facing the government much worse.

Pyne followed his initial concessions with a further offer, saying the government was willing to establish a A$100 million “structural adjustment fund” for universities with large numbers of poor students, create special scholarships for them, and direct the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission to monitor university fees to prevent excessive increases.

The Group of Eight research-intensive universities have strongly backed the deregulation of fees because they could set their fees high enough to make up for the government’s cuts and still attract students willing to pay a much higher price.

Although Universities Australia was initially opposed to the changes, it has welcomed the government’s proposed amendments to the legislation while warning these were insufficient to improve fairness and affordability.

Universities Australia chief executive Belinda Robinson said the creation of a “very modest structural adjustment fund”, a guarantee that fees for domestic students would be lower than for international students, and changes to the government's original proposal on student loans were a step in the right direction. But she said these fell far short of what was required.

Robinson called for the 20% cut in funding to be reduced and for the structural adjustment package to be backed by A$500 million. Establishment of an independent expert panel to oversee implementation of the changes would also be needed as a minimum condition for passing the legislation, she said.

But the National Tertiary Education Union said “tinkering around the edges” would not address the likelihood of soaring fees under a deregulated system. The union’s assistant national secretary, Matthew McGowan, said the proposed amendments were a desperate, last ditch attempt to hide the true impact of deregulation.

“Make no mistake, the key driver of soaring degree prices is the deregulation of fees,” McGowan said. “As long as fee deregulation is on the table, it will be parents’ bank balances not school results that determine who has the opportunity to get a university education.”

He said the government was stripping one in every A$5 from university budgets while shifting its responsibility to fund higher education onto students and their families.

“This is cost shifting on a grand scale, and has no place in an economy that needs to grow and remain competitive into the future. Desperate tinkering around the edges by the Abbott government is an admission of how unfair its higher education proposals are: they will deter many students from university, including mature age students, those from poorer backgrounds, women and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students.”