Stephen Parker: higher education changes a ‘fraud on the electorate’

If passed, the changes to higher education will mean Australia is ‘sleepwalking towards the privatisation of its universities’, according to University of Canberra Vice-Chancellor Stephen Parker. AAP/Paul Miller

Had someone told me last summer that I would be defending public universities on the first day of next summer I would have ridiculed the idea.

Somehow I believed what the Coalition wrote in early 2013: that there would be no change to university funding arrangements. Somehow I believed what Tony Abbott said to the Universities Australia conference in March 2013: that we could expect a period of benign neglect from an Abbott government. And somehow I believed what Abbott said two days before the election in September 2013: that there would be no cuts to education.

It is the last of these canards that is so shocking. Abbott knew he was going to win, so he didn’t even need to promise it to gain votes.

But here we are and here I am.

A further surprise has been to find myself the only Vice-Chancellor to say publicly what at least a few actually believe. I have tried to understand other Vice-Chancellors’ perspectives. I’ve worked at Group of Eight and more modern universities. I was the Senior DVC at Monash. I know the pressures, but nothing justifies the position that they and Universities Australia have taken.

These reforms are 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.

Unfair to students

These reforms are unfair to students – the constituency to which I have devoted 35 years of my working life. They have to lead to significant increases in student debt because this is part of the government’s case for them.

Education Minister Christopher Pyne says the reforms are a way to bring fresh funding into universities, so he must assume that we will go further than just replace government cuts with higher tuition fees.

Australian students already pay a higher proportion of their tuition than those in most OECD countries. This will blight the lives of a generation, unless Australia comes to its senses. Mission Australia released its Youth Survey showing that most teenagers rank career success as their top aspiration, but only around half feel the goal is attainable. It will become a whole lot harder under these changes.

And the impact on women and certain professions will be worse, as Ben Phillips and I have demonstrated in articles in The Conversation when we modelled the likely HECS debts of female scientists, nurses and teachers based on typical career trajectories.

Poor policy design

These reforms are poorly designed policy. Where do I start?

They emerged as a budget measure, but they won’t save the taxpayer money in any real sense. A fundamental feature of HECS is that the government forwards all the money upfront to the university. So if fees go up by more than the cuts, the Commonwealth shells out more from day one.

Default will rise. More students will work overseas – legitimately, this is not evasion – and so only through some arcane aspect of accounting standards can this even look as if it is a savings measure.

This isn’t a savings measure: it is ideology in search of a problem.

But it gets worse. Bizarrely, there is no guarantee that a single cent of the extra money will go into the student’s course: it could go into research, infrastructure, paying for past follies or current cock-ups. It’s tempting, believe me, I make them too, but it’s wrong.

The internal equity aspect of the policy design is laughable. Why should the second poorest quartile of students subsidise the lowest quartile?

So I ask myself: which policy amateur came up with the scheme in the first place?

Sleep-walking towards privatisation

In June, I wrote in The Conversation about the slide towards privatisation. I compared universities with public utilities where the then managements were initially encouraged to be “commercial” and “competitive”. Then they were actually pitted against private providers. Then the utilities were privatised themselves, and required a complete focus on private profit.

The privatisation that we are sleep-walking towards may or may not involve shareholders and the stock market – but it will involve the removal of the public voice.

I can hear the argument in my head already. Some Vice-Chancellor, perhaps one who has championed competition reforms in an earlier life or been the CEO of a large public company, will say:

Now that universities compete for places and on price, and they compete with private providers, including multi-nationals, we need a level playing field.

We have one hand tied behind our backs. We need to be set free, so let’s get auditor-generals out of the place, let’s stop state governments appointing our Senates and Councils, and let’s get staff and students off them while we are at it.

And so on. It will all have a compelling logic because of the corner we have boxed ourselves into.

Death knell of Universities Australia

These reforms also ring the death knell of our peak body – Universities Australia. The support that Universities Australia is giving them is a strange form of suicide ritual.

Older universities, which have benefited from decades of public money, built a brand at taxpayer expense and who now want to run away with it, will raise their fees more. The stratification of institutions will intensify. Competition and dog-eat-dog will be the order of the day. And when they have milked the peak group for what they can get out of it the elites will dance away in a figure eight formation.

We have just seen a week of bizarre national adverts from Universities Australia – presumably aimed at six crossbench senators – full of Orwellian doublespeak that the reforms are fair to students.

Whether it breaks up soon because the tensions are too great, or it survives until the interest group factions have no more use for it and spit it out, Universities Australia is doomed because it has lost its moral compass.

I personally will not attend a further meeting of an organisation with necrotizing fasciitis: the condition where the body eats its own flesh.

A wake-up call

So wake up Australia if you want to preserve your children’s life chances.

Wake up academia – especially those of you who write about public policy but have been strangely silent on this issue.

Wake up senators – you know not what you are playing with – you are aiding and abetting a fraud on the electorate.

Maintain the fight everyone. If the government won’t take the honourable course of acknowledging these reforms are a gross violation of pre-election promises and put them before the electorate, then we must make sure that they lose that election because of them. And I believe they will, as the Victorian state election on Saturday indicated.

Stand up everyone for public universities, reject the reforms, join us at the table for a sensible conversation, without a gun at our heads, about how to make Australian public higher education great.


This is an edited version of a speech delivered to the National Alliance for Public Universities on December 1.