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Issue #1678      March 25, 2015

Pyne’s university plan

$300,000 courses

Forget all the talk about university degrees costing as much as $100,000. If the Coalition’s Higher Education reform bill is passed, then students in some courses could face fees of up to $300,000. Education Minister Christopher Pyne may have been defeated in the Senate twice, but he has not given up on deregulating higher education fees. “Great reform takes time,” Pyne said, following the Senate’s rejection of his revamped Higher Education bill last week.

Photo: National Tertiary Education Union.

The first version of the bill provided for a funding cut of 20 percent to Commonwealth supported places for deregulation of fees to allow universities to charge whatever they liked.

Claims such as higher student fees will result in the “best education system in the world,” show just how out of touch with reality and how little Pyne cares for working people.

Australia’s public universities are already starved of funding and any further cuts would see more staff sacked, even larger class sizes, less student contact with staff and course and campus closures.

In Victoria, the deregulation of the Vocational Education and Training (VET) system resulted in the proliferation of shoddy training operators, leading to almost 10,000 qualifications being recalled in February this year.

Access for privileged

The bill that was defeated last Tuesday (March 17), differs slightly from that thrown out by the Senate on December 2, 2014. In particular, it abandons an increase in interest rates on HECS/HELP student loans, and requires domestic fees to remain lower than international fees.

International fees are far higher than the regulated fees for local students. Arts degrees are the cheapest, and do come in under $100,000 for international students. But the fees for a Bachelor of Science at one of the more expensive (“prestigious” G8) universities are over $100,000. Other courses such as medicine, law, fine arts are much more expensive.

For example, international fees for a Bachelor of Medicine at Monash or Melbourne are over $300,000. If the higher education bill is passed, then these universities could raise their fees to that level for domestic students if they felt the market could stand it. Not many can start life with a debt of $300,000 or have parents who can pay it.

In a desperate attempt to win cross-bench support in the Senate, Pyne backed off on his threat to sack 1,700 scientists from world-renowned research programs if the legislation was not passed. He also deferred the cut in funding and is pushing ahead with deregulation of fees with the bill likely to resurface mid-year.

With each fee increase, more students are denied an opportunity to undertake higher education and for those who do gain access, the debts are mounting. Higher education is returning to the pre-Whitlam days where it was a privilege not a right, and a few of the brightest working class students were given scholarships.

Graduates are already facing large debts with little prospect of affording a deposit for a home, let alone paying off a mortgage.

Education markets

Pyne wants to adopt a “performance based” system of government funding. One of the indicators of a university’s performance would be an estimate of the likelihood of its graduates repaying their debts in full and published for potential students to compare universities – sounds a bit like MySchool rankings.

Universities are increasingly becoming businesses competing for international and domestic students on local and global markets.

For example, RMIT University in Melbourne, boasts that “with three campuses in Melbourne (CBD, Brunswick and Bundoora), two in Vietnam (Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City) and a centre in Barcelona, Spain, RMIT is a truly global university. RMIT also offers programs through partners in Singapore, Hong Kong, mainland China, Indonesia, Sri Lanka, Spain, Belgium and Germany, and enjoys research and industry partnerships on every continent.”

Standards threatened

A university with a high rate of passes is more likely to attract foreign students on a global market. Parents or a student paying $100,000–$300,000 for a degree, plus accommodation, travel and other expenses expects a degree at the end of the course.

There is anecdotal evidence that staff in some universities are being directed to pass a certain percentage of students (eg 90-95 percent) regardless of the standard of their work so as not to deter prospective students.

While entry to the most prestigious universities and courses still remains highly competitive, in other instances entry requirements have been lowered to questionable levels, which only adds to the difficulties of staff on semester or annual contracts to retain standards.

Privatisation

Pyne is most determined at this stage to enact deregulation of higher education. It is central to the process of marketisation of higher education.

And while Pyne attempts to cut funding to public universities, the bill contains provisions to fund student places in private universities at 70 percent of public university rate. This would make it more attractive for the entry of more private providers, including for-profit outfits along the lines of the US and UK where the outcomes have been disastrous.

It is also another step towards the federal government withdrawing its responsibility for higher education funding and complete autonomy of universities.

Pyne is determined to keep pushing for fee deregulation and has for the time being deferred the 20 percent cut.

It is important to show your support for cross-bench Senators Nick Xenophon, Ricky Muir, Jacqui Lambie, Dio Wang, David Leyonhlelm who have indicated they will oppose the legislation, and urge John Madigan who appears to be undecided to join them. The Greens are strongly opposed to the bill and Labor so far is also opposed, although there are Labor figures who support some aspects of it.

In an increasingly hi tech world, it is important that all Australians have access to higher education – not just for employment but their own personal development. This can only be achieved through a centrally funded (no fees) and universally accessible public higher education system with the necessary support for students.

Next article – Editorial – Racist land grab

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