A few embrace higher ed changes but many more have reservations

Submissions to the inquiry into Christopher Pyne’s higher education bill have now closed: what do they say? AAP

Submissions to the Senate’s inquiry into the higher education reform bill have now closed. The submissions are to assist the Senate in deciding whether or not to pass, block or amend proposed changes to higher education.

They key elements of the bill are outlined here but in essence it seeks to greatly deregulate the higher education sector by allowing universities to set their own maximum fees for undergraduate domestic students and increasing competition between public and private providers. If passed, the legislation will shift a greater proportion of the cost of higher education onto the student and increase the way in which interest accumulates on student debt. The changes will also increase competition by opening up the sector to private providers of higher education.

At the time of publication more than 130 submissions have been made public. The majority are against most of the proposed reforms. But the real tale of the tape is in how those submissions break down across the various stakeholder groups. They give great insight into who thinks they will win, or lose, if the bill is passed.

The summaries below refer to the majority opinion of each of the stakeholder groups. In most groups, opposing views were expressed in the minority.

Students

Students, past and present, used their submissions to voice strong objection to the changes, arguing for the Senate to reject the bill entirely. The touchstone issue is a fear that the cost of education will rise significantly, due to fee deregulation and the new student loan interest rate calculations. As one student wrote:

I will be materially worse off and face immense difficulties in my pursuit of education, should the proposed reforms deliver increased tuition fees, as is entirely possible, if not likely.

The same sentiments were voiced by parents of current and future students, one of whom said:

My daughter has already been told to expect to pay an extra 20% to 30% more by her university […] How can she justify going to uni now when she will leave with a debt of close to or over $100,000 charged at near commercial interest rates? What sort of a start in life is that?

Whether fees will hit $100,000 is still unknown in most cases. However, the University of Western Australia (UWA) has released details of its proposed fee structure. This shows that its generic, three-year undergraduate degrees will cost $48,000.

Students seeking professional accreditation (for example teachers, lawyers, doctors) will have to take further postgraduate studies at UWA, meaning for many the total cost of education will approach or even exceed, $100,000. Last week The Australian calculated that under the new fee structure it will cost $95,220 to become a lawyer at UWA.

University employees

With a few exceptions, university employees were also highly critical in their submissions. In addition to voicing the same concerns as the students, they pointed to funding cuts across other areas, including research and research student training.

Staff in the regional universities are particularly concerned their organisations will be harder hit than others. Regional universities enrol disproportionately high numbers (to the rest of the sector) of students from low socio-economic backgrounds, including many Indigenous students. The concern for many is, in the words of one regional university employee:

My university faces the choice of either raising fees [because of the funding cuts] to the point where it can actually provide a decent level of education and service to its students, which will put an education beyond the reach of many of them, or keep the fees low to keep these students and struggle to provide quality education.

Another worry, frequently expressed, is whether universities will in fact use the additional revenue raised through fee deregulation to improve the quality of the students’ education. In the words of one academic:

What guarantee would there be if [universities] were permitted to increase their incomes, that this would lead directly to any improvement in academic standards? None.

Public universities

On the whole, public universities support the proposal to deregulate fees, though they are opposed to reductions in the student subsidy and the changes to interest on student debt. Support is strongest in the research-intensive Group of Eight universities. If the bill is passed the Group of Eight argues:

It will provide a more coherent and financially sustainable foundation for continuing development, open up extensive and diverse opportunities for future generations of learners, and underpin a more globally competitive economy.

The remaining public universities are more muted in their support for fee deregulation. Universities Australia, which represents the consensus position of the sector, had this to say in its submission:

In the absence of any commitment to increase public investment to the level required for the maintenance of an internationally competitive university system, the Committee is encouraged not to oppose fee deregulation.

Opposition is strongest from the regional universities. Many of them argue for some form of regional adjustment to offset competitive inequalities faced by non-metropolitan campuses.

It is clear from the submissions that the motivation for supporting fee deregulation is quite different between the Group of Eight and the other universities. The former sees deregulation as a real opportunity to increase its national dominance and, by freeing up more money for research, drive its member universities even further up international rankings. For most of the other institutions, fee deregulation represents the only offer on the table to make up the public funding shortfall that has occurred over many years and many governments.

Private higher education providers

Submissions from private providers of higher education are highly supportive of the bill, as it provides them with increased access to Commonwealth-supported places. However, the private providers are upset that per-student Commonwealth funding will be provided at only 70% of the rate available to public universities. The government’s rationale is that the higher subsidy for public universities takes into account their additional expenses associated with conducting research and providing community services.

The private providers view it differently. As one says:

This decision signals to the community that the value of a higher education qualification delivered in an environment such as a TAFE institute is lower to those offered in a university context.

Comparisons with US higher education

Finally, many submissions were very critical of the perceived move towards a US style of funding and delivering higher education. Education Minister Christopher Pyne is a strong believer in competition in education and has said:

We have much to learn about this from our friends in the United States […] The competitive nature of American tertiary education breeds the sort of focus on competition for students that [we need].

The majority of people making submissions do not share his enthusiasm. Many criticisms were summarised by Professor John Quiggin, Australian Laureate Fellow in Economics at the University of Queensland. He argues that, while the US remains dominant in research,

undergraduate education is in a state of crisis, failing to meet either the needs of the economy for educated workers or its historic role as an engine of social mobility […] Except for the top 1% of the population, US provision of undergraduate education is far worse than in Australia.