It is good news for many of us involved in higher education that the radical changes to higher education proposed by Education Minister, Christopher Pyne, might not make it through parliament without amendments. But not everyone opposes his plans.
Vice-chancellors of several Australian universities seem to like the idea of fee deregulation. It would mean they could charge higher fees, particularly for high demand courses and particularly in high status institutions, such as The University of Sydney and The University of Melbourne.
There are some wild predictions of increased quality, but the real reason for the support is that our universities are grossly underfunded – the legacy of the Howard years of below OECD funding levels. Those around for the post-Howard after-party will recall vice-chancellors laying bare the higher education funding crisis in the lead up to the 2009 budget. To the surprise of most, the new Labor government kept its word and increased funding, although not at levels universities needed and later it even took some funding back.
Some might find abhorrent the latest escalation of market ideology but the reality is that governments are retreating from public investment in higher education. VCs have been placed in an invidious position, to keep the system operating at or above world standard but without the resources they need to do it.
As Melbourne VC Glyn Davis says:
‘We need more money and governments won’t give it to us’.
However the Federal Government likes the idea of fee deregulation and a “demand driven” funding system because it fits with its strategy of devolving responsibility for public services while retaining control. And it fits nicely with the recent Commission of Audit to increase student fees.
The idea of fee deregulation is one of the many recommendations made by the Kemp and Norton Review, instigated by Christopher Pyne, to look at, and make recommendations, in relation to the lifting (in 2012) of previously imposed limits on the funding of bachelor-degree students at public universities. The full review can be found here.
Another of the Review’s findings that seems to be popular is that low SES students would benefit from accessing sub-bachelor degrees (Diplomas, Advanced Diplomas and Associate Degrees) because it will provide another pathway into higher education. Even the revamped National Centre for Student Equity likes that one.
But where is the evidence that we need another pathway?
Students from low SES backgrounds are accessing bachelor degrees in universities in record numbers and continue to be retained at rates similar to their peers. Redirecting them to sub-degrees will increase the time and money they need to invest in order to get to the same destinations, further penalizing them for their disadvantage.
Kim Carr, Labor shadow minister, warns that with the removal of price control, elite universities will increase degree fees, and thus (because of debt burden fears) the poor will opt for sub-degree courses in second-rate higher education institutions.
Universities Australia Executive Officer Belinda Robinson says that any changes to higher education should be debated and be evidence based. She also questions the legitimacy of governments giving money to private higher education providers listed on the stock market.
Weighing into the debate, Chief Scientist Ian Chubb says that Review claims about the employment shortages for science graduates are not supported by the data.
Staff and student unions point out that Australian university students are already paying high fees by world standards and any rise will leave them heavy in debt.
And if the National VET Equity Advisory Council hadn’t recently been disbanded by the government, it would have tabled its recent research evidence that private higher education providers, including TAFEs offering degrees and associate degrees, have a poor equity record in higher education. As a ‘pathway’, their retention rates for equity groups are particularly shocking.
The bottom line is the combination of raising student fees and redirecting low SES students into sub-degrees will mean students from disadvantaged families will be relegated to low status institutions and degrees, if they are able to get a higher education at all.
No wonder the Review recommends ditching the attainment and participation targets. I’m pyne-ing already for the old days.
Trevor Gale is Professor of Education Policy and Social Justice at Deakin University, and a past president of the Australian Association for Research in Education. From 2008 to 2011 he was the founding director of Australia’s National Centre for Student Equity in Higher Education. He is chief investigator on two current Australian Research Council (ARC) Discovery Grants, one researching the social justice dispositions of secondary teachers in advantaged and disadvantaged Melbourne and Brisbane schools, and the other researching the aspirations of secondary school students in Melbourne’s western suburbs. He has recently completed research for the National VET Equity Advisory Council on the equity track record of private higher education providers.