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Labor’s higher ed policy: focus on retaining students and increasing per-student funding

Labor has said it would immediately scrap cuts to higher education if it won office. Tracey Nearmy/AAP

The federal opposition today announced its higher education policy. With a new prime minister, the announcement of a new education minister, and a possible change of policy, it would be fair enough to wonder about the timing.

But there will be plenty of chance to hash over the details – as the opposition indicated it will initiate a full green paper/white paper consultation process.

The policy has a quality and completions agenda where the ALP will seek to increase the number of students completing their study by 20,000 graduates per year from 2020. To help ensure quality it will invest A$31 million in the higher education regulator, TEQSA.

These will be matched with access and diversity measures to replace the existing Higher Education Participation Program with a “Higher Education Access and Growth Strategy” to lift completion rates across different groups.

The opposition remains committed to 40% of Australians under the age of 35 obtaining a Bachelor’s degree and a target of 20% of students from disadvantaged families attending university. These are two targets the current government has dropped.

To achieve all this, the opposition will provide a per-student “Student Funding Guarantee” so that undergraduate students in 2018 would be funded to the tune of around A$11,800. This would mitigate the Coalition’s proposed 20% cut and add a small additional amount. The funding would be legislated and indexed to ensure the value of the contribution isn’t eroded over time.

This would presumably reverse any cuts to undergraduate student funding that the current government may succeed in getting through the Senate.

Also in the policy is indication the opposition intends to pursue a labour market strategy centred on science, technology engineering and maths, where government would offer to write off the HECS debts of 100,000 students who complete a STEM degree at university.

If this ever comes to pass, it may do little to lift enrolments in many science and engineering courses, as previous attempts to drive science enrolments with HECS discounts have shown only limited success. The opposition will also extend the Quality Indicators for Learning and Teaching website as more that can be done to improve the depth of information, and user experience.

Just in case anybody was unsure, the opposition’s statement today rules out a number of the current government’s policies. Deregulation, as Labor has said before on many occasions, but also the government’s plans to expand the demand-driven system to sub-bachelor places and to bachelor places at non-university higher education providers.

Gone too would be changes to the higher education loan program and the Structural Adjustment Fund for regional universities.

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