An internal discussion paper distributed at a recent Universities Australia meeting in Adelaide canvassed a range of contentious issues including setting minimum entry limits on certain degrees and some degree of fee deregulation, issues on which there is not unity of opinion within the sector.
The Group of Eight has stepped up its own pitch for fee deregulation with the release of research examining Commonwealth funding for universities over the period 1996-2010 showing government funding increases aren’t sustained over time but eroded by inflation and growth in student numbers. It says that despite hefty funding boosts by the Gillard government, including one-off capital funding, the government has shown little sign of willingness to address underfunding of CSPs identified by both the Bradley and Lomax-Smith Reviews.
The data … point to the limits of any government’s capacity to sustain adequate levels of funding for a mass (and post-mass) higher education system. Future governments may not be able to restore real funding rates per student to an acceptable level, while also adequately funding capital and research, within the current funding framework.
But Swinburne University of Technology v-c Linda Kristjanson has sounded the warning: careful what you wish for.
An unfortunate political reality is that governments often see public funding and student contributions as interchangeable. Any increase in student contributions in years to come may well be accompanied by reductions in public expenditure, a measure on which Australia already performs particularly poorly by OECD comparisons. And while the proposition that universities should at least to some extent be able to compete on price would seem on the surface to accord with commonsense, the history of fee deregulation is that most, if not all, institutions eventually move towards the top of what can permissibly be charged.
This calls into question the argument that fee flexibility is the final element of an open market approach to higher education.