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Universities should be able to charge students what they want

ANU Chancellor Gareth Evans and Vice-Chancellor Ian Young are calling for student contributions to be deregulated so universities can charge what they want. ANU

Top universities should be free to charge domestic students whatever they deem appropriate, according to the Vice-Chancellor and Chancellor of the Australian National University.

In an opinion piece calling for an end to the current cap on fees, ANU Vice-Chancellor Ian Young, also chair of the Group of Eight, and ANU Chancellor Gareth Evans, argued Australia can’t expect to compete with the world’s best universities if we continue to employ a “one size fits all” funding system.

This fixed funding model, they argued, creates a lack of diversity in the higher education sector in Australia. The funding constraints also mean some disciplines are disappearing, class sizes are increasing, and innovation is constrained.

Every university in Australia is funded in exactly the same way for its Australian undergraduate students, said Young and Evans, regardless of the quality or type of educational experience the students receive. They said this “badly needs rethinking”.

“In an ideal world, government would fund universities differently for different types and quality of education. But in a challenging economic climate, this is unlikely to happen.”

Evans and Young said the plan to uncap fees would have to involve universities offering equity scholarships that “would also act as a magnet for enhanced philanthropic contributions to support outstanding students”.

The HECS/HELP income contingent loan scheme would continue in the deregulated environment, and the maximum fees universities could charge would be equal to the cost international students pay.

Deakin Vice-Chancellor Jane Den Hollander said while many decision makers seem to be in favour of deregulating fees in order to manage demand driven access, it needs to be examined in terms of what is in the national interest.

“If we deregulate fees, it would create an inequitable system based on a university class structure, and that could lock out many lower SES students,” she said.

The most disadvantaged are still not adequately represented in school retention and success rates in higher education participation, she said.

It is in the national interest to ensure disadvantaged students have “the education they deserve, and our country has the smart and well educated population it needs.”

Ed Byrne, outgoing Vice-Chancellor of Monash University, said his personal view was that as long as equity scholarships were part of the fee deregulated environment, it would be an improvement in the system.

Byrne said the sector was “between a rock and a hard place” because the current system is underfunded but constraints on the public purse mean a funding increase is unlikely.

According to Byrne, if there is no change in the way the sector is funded, Australia won’t have any universities in the top one hundred within a decade.

University of South Australia’s Acting Vice-Chancellor Allan Evans said it was unclear how fee deregulation would directly increase quality in the standards of higher education in Australia: “One could argue that there are far more complex matters that determine university prestige and reputation.”

He said there was potential for deregulation to have a negative impact on those from lower socioeconomic backgrounds, unless strategies were put in place to support their participation.

If the HECS/HELP scheme were retained in a deregulated environment, people could argue there would not be an impact on overall participation, he said. “Students will think even more critically about the value of the degree that they are pursuing and the added value that a higher-cost institution will provide.”

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