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Deregulating university fees “not essential” – new UA chair

Fairfax Media     |   31 May 2015

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 Deregulating university fees is not essential for Australia to have a sustainable and high quality university sector, according to the new chairman of peak body Universities Australia, Barney Glover.

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Barney GloverGlover, who is the University of Western Sydney vice-chancellor, said the university funding debate must focus on the “compelling case” for increased government investment – not just requiring students to pay more for a degree.

In an interview with Fairfax Media marking his arrival at Universities Australia, he also queried the effectiveness of Labor’s proposal to write off HECS debts for 100,000 science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) students.

Universities Australia, which represents Australia’s 39 universities, has, in the past, strongly supported the Abbott government’s push to allow universities to set their own undergraduate fees while opposing proposed cuts to course funding. Education minister Christopher Pyne has vowed to reintroduce legislation later this year following two previous Senate defeats.

Glover said the government is unlikely to pass higher education reform in this term. He is already thinking ahead to the next election, where higher education is set to be a key policy battleground.

This is not the time to be backing away from making the case for public investment in our universities – it is time to intensify the argument. The need to stimulate new jobs in science and technology following the winding down of the mining boom means there is a “compelling case” for increased investment in higher education.

Glover said more secure funding for research infrastructure is especially important so world-leading scientific facilities are not constantly at risk of closure.

When asked if fee deregulation is needed for an affordable and high quality university sector, Professor Glover said:

No, of course it isn’t. Deregulation is at one end of the spectrum; at the other end is the system as it is now.  We are going to continue to engage in a debate about what the appropriate balance is.

Several ideas – such as increased caps on fees or decreased Commonwealth subsidies for universities that increase their fees – have been raised and are worthy of discussion, he said.

While welcoming a “mature debate” about whether students can contribute more to their education costs, Glover warned significant fee increases could deter some students from university study.

There are significant concerns in the community about the burdens placed on students.  Families from low socio-economic backgrounds are concerned about debt for their children. For mature-age undergraduate students studying part time there is a serious concern about their level of debt.

Glover said two principles are non-negotiable for Universities Australia: maintaining the integrity of the income-contingent university loans scheme (HECS) and retaining the demand-driven system that allows universities to decide how many students they enrol in each discipline.

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