Government to renew bid to deregulate tuition fees

Prime Minister Tony Abbott has vowed to put the higher education reforms, which include giving vice-chancellors the freedom to charge any amount for tuition fees, "front and centre" of the government's agenda, despite being blocked by the Senate in December.

The inept federal government has started the new year facing increasing unpopularity and an obstinate Senate preventing radical changes being made to both higher education and health funding in a desperate effort to reduce Australia’s burgeoning deficit.

Some of Prime Minister Tony Abbott’s colleagues have even spoken privately of dumping their first-term parliamentary leader. And not just because of his latest eccentric decision, widely ridiculed across Australia, to award an Australian ‘knighthood’ to Britain’s Prince Philip – the 93-year-old husband of Queen Elizabeth II whose tendency to make racist, rude or insensitive off-the-cuff remarks in public is legendary.

In addition, two of Abbott’s most controversial plans – to force patients to pay more to visit a doctor and to allow vice-chancellors to charge tuition fees as high as they like – have collapsed in the face of public opposition and the refusal by a majority of senators to approve them.

Divisions have emerged

At the same time, divisions have emerged among the vice-chancellors about the move to deregulate fees. The government’s proposed higher education reforms include cutting grants to universities by A$1.2 billion (US$1 billion) and allowing them to set their own fees so they could charge students enough to make up the difference. That is, students would have to pay for the government’s own cuts to spending.

Although most vice-chancellors approved of the plan, the education union and a majority of the public are deeply opposed – as are the Labor Opposition and the Greens in the Senate.

But a key group of senators who took up their seats in the new parliament last September include eight crossbenchers and the government needs the support of six, along with their own senators, to get the so-called ‘reforms’ passed.

Reducing the cut

Returning from his Christmas break last week, Abbott vowed to put the higher education reforms at the top of the government's agenda. To garner support from the crossbench senators who oppose the funding cuts and the lifting of limits on fees, he suggested the A$1.2 billion spending slice might be reduced or dropped, while still allowing universities to charge their own fees.

The vice-chancellors’ lobby group, Universities Australia, or UA, welcomed the move saying a reduction in the 20% cut to university funding as part of the negotiations with crossbench senators would be a “positive move”.

The National Tertiary Education Union, however, said the government’s latest gambit “should be treated with the contempt it deserves”.

“Let’s be very clear,” said union president Jeannie Rea. “Any discussion about reducing the 20% budget cut is only a return to the status quo of inadequate government investment in students’ education.”

Rea suggested the Prime Minister’s offer to dump the 20% funding cut was “a policy Trojan horse designed to get fee deregulation on the books in preparation for future cuts to public funding”.

If Abbott were to drop the cuts, it would mean the government could end up spending more on higher education without ruling out the “very real possibility that some students could be charged A$100,000 for their degrees”.

Deregulating fees while also giving subsidies to private operators was at the core of the government’s policy and it seemed the government would make any promises to get support, Rea said.

“But it is the consequences of deregulation – where some universities will charge much higher fees and some will struggle to attract students unless they lower fees and therefore compromise on education quality – [which] is exactly what has been rejected by senators,” she said.

“We do not want to go down the path of Americanisation where what university you went to matters rather than the degree you have earned.”

Deputy chief executive of Universities Australia, Anne-Marie Lansdown, said that the peak body had long called for a reduction to the A$1.2 billion cut which would put significant upward pressure on student fees, making them higher than they needed to be if fees were deregulated.

"If the negotiations in the Senate can scale back the cut, it would be a very positive step, one that goes directly to the issue of addressing fairness and affordability for students and parents," Lansdown said.

Vice-chancellors divided

Vice-chancellors themselves, however, are divided on the wisdom of universities being given the freedom to set their own fees. While all of those who head the Group of Eight research-intensive institutions would happily impose higher charges on students, believing they could never satisfy student demand for their courses no matter what the cost, others disagree.

As University World News reported in December, University of Canberra vice-chancellor Professor Stephen Parker, a former deputy vice-chancellor at Monash University, declared the reforms were unfair to students and poorly designed policy.

“If they go through, Australia is 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 warned.

Other vice-chancellors have called on the government to delay introduction of any changes until after the proposed 2016 starting date, saying it was unreasonable to deregulate fees without giving time for the parliament to consider and implement any final legislation, or for universities to provide appropriate advice to prospective students.

Students enrolling to begin their courses this year still have no idea how much more they will be expected to pay in fees or how much they will owe when they graduate in three or four years' time.

Meanwhile, parliament resumes on 9 February when senators will return to debate the government’s higher education plans.

With a government desperate to solve at least one intractable problem, it seems likely there will be agreement about maintaining or slightly reducing spending on universities while vice-chancellors may have limits imposed on how high they can set their tuition fees.