Cuts, blood, but still no cure

THE (Times Higher Education) - - NEWS - Conor King is ex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tor of the In­no­va­tive Re­search Uni­ver­si­ties mis­sion group.

In the run-up to his 2013 gen­eral elec­tion vic­tory, the leader of the Aus­tralian op­po­si­tion, Tony Ab­bott, de­clared that his party would ex­er­cise “mas­terly in­ac­tiv­ity” when it came to uni­ver­si­ties. Four years on, noth­ing has changed in pol­icy terms, but there has been much ac­tiv­ity – lit­tle of it mas­terly.

De­ter­mined to record a bud­get sur­plus by 2021, the Lib­eral-Na­tional gov­ern­ment has had two goes at over­haul­ing univer­sity fund­ing. The first, un­der Christo­pher Pyne’s ten­ure as ed­u­ca­tion min­is­ter, ac­cepted uni­ver­si­ties’ ar­gu­ment that they needed more rev­enue to ed­u­cate and re­search well. It pro­posed al­low­ing them to charge stu­dents as much as needed in ex­change for ac­cept­ing a 20 per cent cut in pub­lic fund­ing. The gov­ern­ment would save, uni­ver­si­ties would have more rev­enue, and stu­dents would, in the­ory, get bet­ter out­comes.

Fears of “$100,000 de­grees” sank that pack­age. The un­cer­tainty about how high tu­ition fees would rise was too much for cru­cial sen­a­tors.

The sec­ond pack­age – un­der a new ed­u­ca­tion min­is­ter, Si­mon Birm­ing­ham, and a new prime min­is­ter, Mal­colm Turn­bull – re­v­ersed the logic of the first. The gov­ern­ment now ar­gued that uni­ver­si­ties were do­ing well, and thus needed less rev­enue and could cope with a 5 per cent cut by be­ing even more won­der­fully ef­fi­cient. The max­i­mum stu­dent charges would rise by 7.5 per cent, with gov­ern­ment fund­ing fall­ing by the same amount. But the key Sen­ate group, the Nick Xenophon Team of in­de­pen­dents, once again re­jected the pack­age amid univer­sity-led ar­gu­ment that “stu­dents will pay more for less”.

So where does the gov­ern­ment go from here?

Nei­ther re­form pack­age chal­lenged the de­mand-led ad­mis­sions sys­tem in­tro­duced in 2012. Im­plicit in that sys­tem is a recog­ni­tion that a post-sec­ondary qual­i­fi­ca­tion, whether from higher or vo­ca­tional ed­u­ca­tion, is needed. A de­gree is no longer a guar­an­tee of fu­ture wealth; rather, not hav­ing one puts you at great risk of fu­ture poverty. No par­lia­men­tar­ian wants to tell con­stituents that their chil­dren should not have ac­cess to univer­sity.

How­ever, if ev­ery­one is to ac­cess ter­tiary ed­u­ca­tion, how is it to be re­sourced? Aus­tralia’s in­come-con­tin­gent stu­dent loans sys­tem has worked well to gen­er­ate sig­nif­i­cant funds and re­duce the up­front costs of higher ed­u­ca­tion. It may be that we have pushed it as far as it can go. The higher the charge, the longer grad­u­ates will be re­pay­ing once they join the work­force and the less likely they will be to re­pay it in full.

The old as­sump­tion that univer­sity stu­dents do not mat­ter po­lit­i­cally is chal­lenged. Univer­sity debt is now com­mon, and higher charges are a po­lit­i­cal neg­a­tive that echoes the re­sis­tance to fees else­where in the world – in­clud­ing in New Zealand, whose new gov­ern­ment has pledged to abol­ish them.

The Aus­tralian gov­ern­ment has now to in­di­cate its po­si­tion in re­sponse to the Xenophon Team’s re­jec­tion of its lat­est plan.

With­out a vote, the leg­is­la­tion re­mains alive un­til the gov­ern­ment de­clares oth­er­wise. The loom­ing date is the mid-year bud­get up­date that will be re­leased late in De­cem­ber. The gov­ern­ment either con­cedes that the pack­age is lost, per­haps an­nounc­ing other changes – or, as it did af­ter the first de­feat of Pyne’s pack­age – pre­tends that even­tu­ally all will be passed. With key changes sched­uled to com­mence from Jan­uary 2018, the lat­ter looks fool­ish, but re­mains pos­si­ble.

Uni­ver­si­ties are also fo­cused on ev­ery ru­mour of what the gov­ern­ment could do with­out a change in leg­is­la­tion. The ma­jor pro­grammes con­trolled by the min­is­ter are the Higher Ed­u­ca­tion Par­tic­i­pa­tion and Part­ner­ships Pro­gram, which is aimed at sup­port­ing stu­dents from de­prived back­grounds, and re­search fund­ing. The gov­ern­ment also has some pow­ers to freeze fund­ing at the level of the year be­fore, and to reim­pose caps on funded places.

But are such mea­sures plau­si­ble? The gov­ern­ment’s ar­gu­ment that the fu­ture is based on in­no­va­tion would look weak set against a ma­jor slash­ing of re­search fund­ing. And freez­ing univer­sity fund­ing is a tem­po­rary op­tion that would need an end point.

The Xenophon Team ad­vo­cates a re­view of all ter­tiary ed­u­ca­tion. There is much to be said for such a search for greater clar­ity, but it would mean sta­sis for two years. For uni­ver­si­ties, that is a bearable out­come, but, for the gov­ern­ment, it de­fers yet again re­set­ting univer­sity fund­ing.

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