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Return to higher education elitism

  • 23 January 2015

Federal treasurer Joe Hockey has reaffirmed the Government’s intention to reintroduce into Parliament in the forthcoming February session its Higher Education and Research Reform Amendment Bill.

This Bill was narrowly defeated in the Senate in November 2014, but the Government obviously expects that over the intervening three months it has been able to convince a couple of the cross-benchers of the acceptability and inevitability of its reforms.

There have been suggestions that the Government might have been persuaded to amend some of the more radical elements of its proposed reforms, but the responsible Minister, Christopher Pyne, has been adamant that such negotiations will not be entered into.

This is not surprising. He only needs a couple of cross-bench votes for the Bill to pass the Senate, and he has the almost unanimous support of the Vice-Chancellors of Australia’s thirty eight universities. Nonetheless, on Wednesday there were some indications that the Government might be willing to amend some of the provisions of the Bill to make doubly sure of Senate approval.

Once can sympathise with the Vice-Chancellors. Over many years Government financial support for higher education has been eroded in real terms, and uncapped student numbers (for which, let it be said, the Vice-Chancellors themselves agitated) have put further strains on already very tight operational budgets.

Faced with a cut of 20 per cent in Government funding, one can understand why the Vice-Chancellors, with one notable exception, capitulated to the Government’s demands, especially since the stick was also accompanied by the carrot of deregulation of undergraduate student fees. This also was a development for which the Vice-Chancellors had agitated, indeed even more enthusiastically and over a more prolonged period than they had for the uncapping of student numbers. 

Further, they could claim that there was a certain logic in deregulating undergraduate student fees. International student fees and most domestic graduate fees were deregulated – it was inevitable that sooner or later undergraduate fees should follow the same path. Why not sooner, especially since, with a 20 per cent cut in Government funding, they could wash their hands, Pilate fashion, of responsibility for this added financial imposition on students?

And finally, of course, access to this unregulated source of revenue would not only remedy operational budgets. It would also enable the universities – especially the G8 major universities – to maintain their quite remarkable international rankings, even though their rankings are based on research performance and only