What the last year of debate over higher education has taught us

What are universities for? Flickr/Lawrence OP, CC BY

The Commonwealth budget is a fortnight away, and it is almost the first anniversary since Australia learnt of the (crazy? brave?) attempt by Education Minister Christopher Pyne to recreate Australia’s higher education system.

Pyne has indicated that he remains committed to deregulating university fees, so it’s a good moment to reflect on the package, and what it taught us in the last year.

One outcome of the last year is that for the moment, higher education is an issue of both public and political attention. A year is a long time in politics, but the 2016 election will see both major parties offering genuinely different policies on higher education for the first time in a while.

This is important for the future of the sector. The lack of a broader public conversation about higher education over the last few years was mirrored, many would agree, in the relatively low level of knowledge Australians have demonstrated about universities. Warm support for higher education is not matched with even basic knowledge of what it is that universities do.

The cynical might claim that the brief moment where the political classes and wider public paid attention to the future will soon wane. But this perhaps forgets that there are near a million domestic students in higher education at present.

Between these students and their families, deregulation or not, it will affect a significant proportion of the population. So with a mass education system, it may stay on the agenda.

Another lesson from the last year is that we need to have a conversation about what Australian universities should do, and not just about how much students should pay. We need a conversation about what our universities are for but it is clear that depending on whom you ask, you’ll get a very different answer.

If all they deliver is private benefit, a better job and house than the next person, and an overseas holiday (or two) a year, then it is pretty hard to argue that students shouldn’t foot a large proportion of the bill.

If higher education delivers something more, delivers public benefits, then we need to commit to public funding. But we also need some clear idea on what those public benefits are.

The onus here is on universities themselves to make these arguments. Most are now closer to institutions of civil society than straight arms of government. But these are still in the main publicly supported institutions, so must justify this.

In arguing for any change an important test to be applied is whether or not a particular proposal is best for students and their universities, and whether it can realistically achieve broad political support to ensure stability in the system. A scare campaign about $100,000 degrees is not a helpful contribution to a debate over public funding.

Then there is the issue of research funding, which has been secondary in the debate over the proposed higher education changes. Funding the Australian research effort, increasingly undertaken in universities, has nearly been a casualty of the last year.

Claims that charging students high fees will propel Australia’s research effort is dangerous thinking but has been part of the debate about high fees and high university rankings. Australia has little option but to start to untie research funding from teaching funding unless we risk serious consequences for both.

But with the budget coming up in a few weeks, like last time, we could be in for some surprises.