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The thing about fees….

This item from The Scan archive, published in February 2013, has a certain timelessness.

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Dollar notesThe Review of Base Funding was charged with, among other things, determining an appropriate “balance of resources” to be contributed by Government, students and others, in a way that would to ensure that fees do not constitute a barrier to participation. While the review found that the “average level of base funding per place should be increased”, a hard pressed Commonwealth government rejected this – and ruled out any increase in fees.

The government has also ruled out fiddling with reintroducing enrolment caps, although from time to time blue-bookformer minister Chris Evans seemed to be mulling it over. Ditto the opposition, which ruled out fiddling with both fees and caps. We expect that this position on fees and caps will persist until some time in the afternoon of Sunday 15 September, when the Treasury briefs the incoming Prime Minister, particularly if the briefing is coming from the Blue Book (David Cameron made soothing noises about fees, too- and promptly trebled them)

University chiefs pretty well agree that universities are underfunded for the tasks expected of them but there’s been no agreement on the role of increased fees in making up the perceived shortfall. All through last year, debate about fees rumbled along in the sector, after Universities Australia (UA) chair Glyn Davis put the issue on the agenda at the UA Conference, when he suggested that new demand-driven system had created a “half” market where universities could compete for domestic students on quality, but not on price. The university sector seems sort of split along three lines.

In the blue corner stand the sandstone universities, plus a couple of fellow travellers, who take the entirely reasonable approach that in the absence of further Commonwealth munificence the only alternative source of significant additional funding are students, by way of increased fees. In a rather petulant outburst, Go8 chair Fred Hilmer slammed a delay in new money for indirect research costs, blaming the blowout in the cost of the government’s “ill conceived” uncapping of student places.:

The government could have saved $1 billion by limiting demand-driven funding to those with the ability to successfully complete and benefit from university education . . .

Fred HilmerIt’s not what he meant but it sounded dreadfully like letting the hoi polloi through the portals was burning up dollars that he could use much more wisely. Davis took a more nuanced approach, suggesting that it might be useful to recalibrate the demand driven system.

In the red corner stand the besser block universities (and a few fellow travellers). Then UWS acting vice-chancellor Rhonda Hawkins questioned the Go8’s apparent enthusiasm for fee increases, saying fees already are already at a “tipping point” and if they were to rise further it risked locking out debt-wary poorer students.

And in the pink centre stand the redbrick universities, which can see the argument for fee increases but doubt whether there’s a net financial benefit: history, here and overseas, is that student fee increases are usually offset be commensurate cuts in public funding (see what happened under David Cameron and which universities were most affected ). Swinburne University of Technology v-c Linda Kristjanson sounded this warning: of careful what you wish for.

And, somewhere off in his own little universe (he defies colour coding), stands Andrew Norton (Grattan Institute) who grattan_logoreckoned you could halve the current public subsidy, if not pull it altogether, which would save $3-6 billion a year, money which could be better spent than in subsidising hoity toity university students. You could but only at the expense of participation and attainment and damage to social cohesion (see what happened under David Cameron). From wherever they stood in the ring, vice-chancellors fell over themselves to beat up on Norton, my personal favourite being Greg Craven, who slammed the report’s focus on numbers while failing to recognise the wider community value of higher education:

This seems to be a calculator with a personality disorder.

In preparing its first ever comprehensive election “manifesto”, vice-chancellors have so far been unable to agree a “unified” position on fees. With this year’s UA conference just a couple of weeks away, it will be interesting to see what, if anything, is said on fees. I would think very little, although a lot will be said about the sufficiency of (or lack thereof) of funding.

But with the not altogether unlikely prospect of an Abbott coalition government by mid-September, you can bet it’s an issue that is still high on the agenda.

Some other relevant reading:

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