Non-Go8 university leaders seek changes to higher education bill

The government’s higher education reforms will benefit the prestigious universities with branding and price power, but few others. Supplied

Leaders of Australia’s middle-tier and regional universities are concerned that the government’s proposed higher education package will hurt their brand and their students.

At a conference in Melbourne today, Deregulation in Higher Education, Southern Cross University Vice-Chancellor Peter Lee said his university and others in regional areas will be at a competitive disadvantage to larger, longer-established universities in capital cities when fee deregulation leads to market forces taking over the higher education sector in Australia.

Professor Lee said the government reform package fails to acknowledge that not all universities are starting off on equal footing in the new “marketplace”. This would have a negative effect on the students and communities they serve.

However, getting your voice heard in Canberra is “not always easy from Rockhampton or Ballarat, Lismore or Sippy Downs”, he said.

He said regional universities didn’t want their reputations and efforts being swallowed by the prestigious universities. They feared that prestigious universities would dominate research capabilities due to an ability to charge more than regional and middle-tier counterparts.

“Why should regional students not get the opportunity to study in an institution with a quality research culture as their city-based peers are able to do?” he said.

One of his main concerns about the reforms is the government’s insistence that regional and middle-tier universities will “flourish” due to their capability to charge less than prestigious universities.

“I want Southern Cross University to be ‘competitive’ because students want to come here. I don’t want to be ‘competitive’ because we’re ‘cheap and nasty’,” he said.

Swinburne Vice-Chancellor Linda Kristjanson expressed concerns about student equity under the proposed changes, saying locking out talented disadvantaged students “in the hope of perhaps one day creating an Australian equivalent of Harvard just isn’t worth it”.

Swinburne has proposed an amendment to the package, suggesting a cap be put on the maximum annual loan students can borrow from government.

Professor Kristjanson said this would be in line with the government’s objectives to deregulate price and volume, but still let the market do the work.

She said it would also deter price gouging by universities as it’s more difficult having to explain to students that they can’t put all of their tuition on the “Commonwealth credit card”.

“It’s very easy – too easy – to charge students too much if all they need to do is to ‘put it on HELP’,” she said.

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