You might share my concerns about what is looming for higher education in the coming election. A returned conservative government would continue with its agenda to significantly cut funding to universities. It appears likely to continue with its plan to deregulate fees, albeit at a slower pace than previously proposed.
However the alternative that Labor seems to be proposing for higher education is based on a flawed assumption.
Pyne’s “dumped” package is still in play
Two years ago, the then federal Minister for Education, Christopher Pyne, proposed a radical set of changes for higher education funding including, among other things, a 20% cut to university base funding and full fee deregulation. While the latter received support from some institutions and Vice-Chancellors, there were very few supporters of the whole package.
Among those who did not support it were the ‘cross-benchers’, the independent and minor party members of the Parliament of Australia who have held the balance of power since elected in 2014. So, thankfully, the proposals were not passed.
The Turnbull government has since introduced Senate voting reforms which means the minor parties will not be able to swap preferences in order to secure Senate seats as they have done in the past, and there is less likelihood of a future cross bench like the current one. This is a shame for higher education, in my view, as these folk actually listened to the sector and public and responded accordingly.
Mr Pyne has now moved onto other responsibilities. I will remind you just before he moved on he told us he was “the fixer”.
The new and current Education Minister, Simon Birmingham, has released a discussion paper in lieu of budget measures.
However, a former senior Education bureaucrat, Mark Warburton, has pointed out in a piece in The Mandarin that Birmingham’s discussion paper includes some assumptions that were contained in Christopher Pyne’s 2014 budget, and abandons others. But is not completely clear what is in and what is out.
As Warburton says, it appears certain that the 20% cut to student subsidies under the Commonwealth Grant Scheme (CGS) remains in the budget and that the government has also made it clear that it remains committed to Pyne’s reforms.
He adds that the government has clearly announced two additions to the higher education package. The first is that there would be an additional one-year delay to the start date, until the beginning of 2018. The second is removing the full deregulation of fees.
But Warburton points out that the additional proposals in the minister’s discussion paper are not included or mentioned in the official budget papers. They are simply options in a discussion paper. And one of these options is the incremental introduction of fee deregulation. This is indeed not Christopher Pyne’s proposed one-step approach, however it is very much an introduction of higher education fee deregulation.
To sum up my concerns about the Turnbull Government’s plans for higher education
I’m worried about the potential impact of a 20% funding cut to the ability of some regional and other smaller universities to operate. The opportunities for regional, rural and remote students to access university education would surely be affected.
Fee deregulation, no matter how it is undertaken, will lead to fee increases. My concern is this will set up yet another hurdle for various non-traditional student cohorts, because of actual costs or the perception that university education is too expensive.
Labor’s intentions for higher education is based on a flawed assumption
But I’m also worried about Labor’s intentions around higher education. Kim Carr has indicated that Labor will fund universities differently in the future, pointing to the importance of students completing programs of study that they start. The logical follow-through is that universities will be funded for completions, and the get-paid-as-you-enrol-students-each-year arrangement will no longer apply.
The assumption behind this sort of initiative is that universities need to stop letting students drop out. As if we do let students drop out. In fact, universities employ a wide range of strategies to keep students.
The strategies we use include the following: pre-enrolment advising; enabling and preparatory programs; concurrent academic support; counselling services; options to change enrolment internally with credit should a student’s original choice not be suitable; scholarships and bursaries; equipment loan schemes; financial assistance with study related costs; student-friendly approaches to administration and interaction; monitoring and responding to at-risk sub-cohorts; proactive advice provision; mentoring from experienced senior students; transition programs; staff coordinators; strategic directions from Councils; senior appointments charged with improving retention. Significant funding is directed at all of these efforts.
We do our best, improving our efforts every single semester, following every piece of research and other robust evidence that guides our efforts. At my university we trial new ways to put in place preventions and interventions, and we closely monitor the effects of these.
Having tried as hard as we can to keep them, we ask students who finally do decide to leave why they are leaving and feed that back to relevant parts of the university to drive continuous improvement. We ask students who stay what helped them to stay and succeed and feed that back to relevant parts of the university to recognise and reward efforts that work. Many other universities do the same.
But when students drop out, it is often because of demographic and/or personal factors, rather than because universities have stood by and let them fall away. Demographic factors that can contribute to the likelihood of drop out include being: part-time; mature-age; online; first year; an articulator from VET; the first in family to attend tertiary study; from a low socioeconomic status background; Indigenous; and/or a student with a disability. There are increasing numbers and proportions of these students in a massified university system.
Personal factors include challenges related to students’ physical and mental health, their finances, their family responsibilities, their paid employment commitments, relationship issues they might experience and/or accidents or misadventure. And when these personal challenges intersect with demographic characteristics, the impact can be profoundly negative for the student and their study success, despite every effort by a university to assist and to encourage them to stay in study.
Punishing universities for enabling students who have the characteristics above to get a higher education seems perverse. The exclusive universities will do well and the elite will prosper. Is this really what Labor wants?
We need an effective higher education package that will benefit all Australians
I’m worried that cuts to funding, fee hikes, funding formula changes and the absence of a cross bench who will not do deals with major parties will leave students, their families, their communities, the professions, the economy and society worse off.
As I see it the policies on offer so far will mean that many Australians will be turned away from higher education and the benefits it brings both personally and to the nation as a whole.
Professor Marcia Devlin is a Professor of Learning Enhancement and Deputy Vice-Chancellor (Learning and Quality) at Federation University Australia. @MarciaDevlin