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Senate committee reports on uni fees

 28 October 2014

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The Senate Education and Employment Legislation Committee has tabled its report on the government’s Higher Education and Research  Amendment  Bill  after two months of hearings and 164 submissions from interested parties.

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 $100 notes

It’s utterly predictable: the committee has split 3 ways, with a majority report by the 3 Coalition members, recommending passage of the bill, perhaps with amendments,  and dissenting reports by the single Labor member and the single Greens member, both recommending rejection of the bill.  Predictable as it is, the report is also disappointing:  the recommendations contribute nothing at all to the resolution of a fundamental issue: placing the financing of Australian higher education – and, from The Scan’s perspective, Australian universities – on a sustainable footing.

The majority Coalition report acknowledges the various issues that have been raised with the reform package – principally, the affordability of higher education – but the recommendations are so anodyne as to be meaningless: they are framed merely to provide wriggle room for Christopher Pyne to negotiate .  Here’s an example:

The committee recommends that the government explore the provision of a structural adjustment package to assist certain sections of the higher education sector transition to a fully deregulated system. (emphasis added)

Not particularly helpful, really.

We suppose that the majority report recommendations provide a pointer to what the government might be prepared to negotiate around but that recommendation – and   the rest – is hardly breathtaking for its insight and ingenuity.  And the only recommendation that really counts is the final one:

The committee recommends that the bill be passed.

You can’t say much more for the two dissenting reports:   Labor recommended blanket rejection of the entire  the bill (with a few innocuous exceptions)  and the Greens recommended  rejection of the entire bill, with the injunction that the government revisit providing free higher education.

Where to from here?

In an op-ed piece in The Australian on 28 October 2014, Melbourne University vice-chancellor Glyn Davis and La Trobe University vice-chancellor John Dewar put it this way:

Commentators have found much to fault in the higher education reform package. We are among those concerned about proposed higher interest rates for loan repayments and further cuts to funding for teaching, and have called for amendments to ameliorate these measures. Yet just rejecting the package, as urged by some senators, provides no solutions for a sector that cannot operate on present public funding and has fewer options to supplement income. Leaving the present settings in place is bad policy with worrying implications.

The implications are certainly worrying.  Labor can’t come to this argument entirely blameless: when in government it imposed or proposed swingeing cuts to the university sector of over $4 billion.  But the most telling argument for some sort of funding reform is a graph in the Labor dissenting report  (page 74 of the report):

 

Figure 1: Real Commonwealth funding per student place

 

2012 2013 2014 2015 2016 2017 2018
RealCommonwealth Contribution per student place(2014 dollars) 11,187 10,832 10,600 10,400 9,200 8,800 8,500

 

Way back in February  2013, when looking at the fees imbroglio, The Scan observed:

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.

Then in December 2013, in Policy directions in higher education, your correspondent observed (published in the ACPET Journal of Higher Education) :

 ….significant changes to HECS (HELP) seem certain. These could include the introduction of a real interest rate (perhaps something higher than CPI but lower than market rates), a lower repayment threshold (currently HECS debtors begin repaying when their income exceeds $51,000), methods to collect repayments from expatriates (bilateral agreements with the UK and New Zealand, to start with), and recovery of HECS debts from deceased estates.  A proponent of such reforms in the past has been former education minister, Amanda Vanstone — a member of the Commission of Audit.

That’s where we’re headed – and it seems unavoidable.

In the meantime , Clive Palmer has reaffirmed  the Palmer United Party’s opposition to the government’s reform package – Palmer promises ‘bye bye’ to government’s proposed university reforms.

We know Palmer can wiggle – will he wriggle?

 

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