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Higher education revolution – redux

6 May 2014

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christopher-pyneEducation minister Christopher Pyne has set the scene for extensive changes, to be announced “in-principle” in the forthcoming Federal Budget (13 May), to higher education funding arrangements, as proposed by the Kemp- Norton Review and the Commission of Audit. He has come out strongly in support of allowing universities to compete on price by deregulating what fees they can charge students and extending the publicly subsidised demand-driven system to non-university higher education providers (NUHEPs). Students at NUHEPs would receive a lesser subsidy than students at universities because they do not need to fund research activities. He also strongly backs another Kemp-Norton recommendation for the federal government to subsidise pathway programs into universities. He indicated that the burden of the cost of tuition also might be shifted, from the government currently providing on average 60% of the costs to something less, with the student contribution rising.

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In framing the federal Budget for higher education and research, Pyne said the government faces five significant challenges:

  1. Repair the national Budget, given the unsustainable Budget deficits and ballooning debt left by the previous government.
  2. Australia’s higher education and research systems are at risk of being left behind and overtaken by the growing university systems in our region.
  3. Growth in the number of higher education students as a result of the introduction of demand driven bachelor degree places is driving up the cost of higher education to the taxpayer. But there are compelling reasons to expand the demand driven system to support more students – spreading opportunity further for students.
  4. The previous government also left funding cliffs for essential research programmes.
  5. Meeting all those challenges in ways that are fair and reasonable both to students and to taxpayers.

He said if Australia is to achieve world class status it will “require government to change the way it treats universities and colleges, and to give them more freedom to do what they do best”:

If universities and colleges were able to compete on price, it would mean they must have a greater focus on meeting the needs of students. They would need to continuously improve the teaching and learning they offer to attract students.

Pyne said if the government accepts the recent recommendation of the Kemp-Norton review to expose universities to more competition from private colleges and TAFEs, then “there would need to be careful attention given to how this is done”.

After an in-principle decision along these lines, it would be necessary for there to be consultation and review of relevant evidence to determine the appropriate conditions of eligibility for Commonwealth-supported places, and the terms of such places. Obviously, only providers registered with the tertiary quality agency, TEQSA, could be eligible, and only for accredited courses; and there would be other important conditions as well.

Pyne said it would be “appropriate” for non-university education providers “to be funded at a lower rate than universities” because they do not need to fund, for example, research activities.

Pyne gave tacit support to the view, expressed in the Kemp/Norton Review and elsewhere, that pathway courses are the best option for some students, although in the main  such courses are excluded from the demand driven higher education system.

These arrangements encourage students to enter bachelor degree programmes when they may be better suited to a diploma programme. Pathway courses suit many students who are less well prepared to attend university and they also prepare students for jobs where there is growing demand. The government could do more to ensure that students can study what they choose and where they choose.

Pyne indicated  that the budget will also include funding for the continuation of the National Collaborative Research Infrastructure Scheme, which pays for the significant ongoing costs of 27 world-class research centres.

 

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