Deregulation could ‘set universities free’…to hike fees

Jordyn Butler reports on the shady business of university fees, deregulation and “setting higher education providers free”. Imagine, RMIT University being on par with international universities like Oxford, Harvard and Stanford. The level of education, resources and brand would surely be beneficial for all of us. But at what cost? It seems the only way to do so is for students to foot the bill and pay their own way. Australia’s top universities are calling for the deregulation of university fees to produce an innovative and creative sector that is worthy of competing on a world-class level – similar to the US system. And here’s the catch: if universities are deregulated they can charge whatever they want for certain courses. Deanna Taylor, the National President of the National Union of Students told Catalyst “it won’t work”. “And even if by some chance it did work, if you’re passing the burden onto students to make that happen is not the right thing to be doing,” she said. However, it is not just experts and academics taking trying to pass the buck. With the federal budget looming there is speculation the Coalition government is considering deregulating the red tape around fees for Australian universities and their own funding obligations. Or as Education Minister Christopher Pyne calls it setting the “higher education providers free”. Maiy Azize, spokesperson for the office of Greens Senator Lee Rhiannon, said the only way to improve our universities is to boost funding. “So what this government is doing is cutting billions of dollars out of universities… that’s not the way to build a world-class university system,” she said. The Kemp-Norton review, released two weeks ago is a recommendation to the Coalition government calling for private universities, TAFEs and other non-university higher education providers to receive blanket funding. And while some universities are welcoming the recommendations, to do so would mean to charge students more. Azize said, “Basically they’re cutting the sector. They’re going to subsidise private and for-profit institutions, and students are going to be footing the bill for all of that. So that’s what setting university free means.” Earlier this week, the Minister gave a speech in London on how deregulating fees could stop Australian universities from falling behind in comparison to the rest of the world. And while it was not an official response to the review, with a dream of Australia’s very own version of an Ivy League College, Pyne set tongues wagging. In the speech he hinted the government would adopt the Kemp-Norton recommendation in the May budget saying he would “provide them with more autonomy and challenge them to map out their futures according to their strengths.” “We have much to learn about universities competing for students and focusing on our students…Not least, we have much to learn about this from our friends in the United States,” he said. Taylor says she can’t see any reason why Australian universities should try to move to a US style system. “The United States model, depends on levels of education depending on how much money you have,” she said. “We also know that student debt

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is far far higher in the United States than it is in Australia.” But could this lead to an inequitable university culture, locking out potential university students on the basis of their bank balance? And is the only way to achieve a world-class level of education for our universities through money? “We have evidence to suggest that students from low socio-economic backgrounds are debt adverse and are put off by the idea of having very, very high levels of debt. And just because we have an income constant loan scheme does not mean you charge whatever you feel like. Given that that is the case and there are students who at a certain point will just say, no I simply can’t afford it,” said Taylor. Azize concurs; she says making university more expensive will create a more elitist system. “If you come from a poorer background you’re not going to be able to afford to go to one of the better universities or you’re going to have to take out a lot of debt to be able to afford to go to uni. So that’s not fair.” Jackson Smith, who is studying a Bachelor of Aviation at RMIT University said while he thinks an increase in funding of any kind will result in an improved higher education system what worries him is the desire to become like the US model. “I’m afraid if we follow that model to much, we’ll see a similar situation here and an overall decline in Australian students following on towards high education,” he said. Smith continued, “I think the risk [that] exists though is that once a higher, more reliable stream of income is coming in for these deregulated universities, we’ll see the government go and trim funding back even further, putting us back at square one, albeit with higher and unsustainable fees for students.” Sarah Maunder, RMIT University Communications student agrees. “I understand it looks great to have our universities in the top ranking, but it is really necessary?” she said. “Rather than trying to compete with Ivy League schools maybe we should just concentrate on making our system work the best way possible.” While we won’t find out what is going to happen until budget day, one thing that has been made clear is what is good for the sector isn’t necessarily good news for students. Group of Eight (Go8) were approached by Catalyst for this piece but declined to comment, referring us to a media release dated two weeks ago. In response to the government signalling to a broad deregulation agenda the National Union of Students has called a National Day of Action on May 23rd which will involve demonstrations on all the capital cities. By Jordyn Butler Photo via Flickr

Catalyst has been the student publication of RMIT University since 1944. We may be older than your parents but we’re still going strong!

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