fee deregulation

What is happening with higher education in this election? (Yes you should be worried)

You might share my concerns about what is looming for higher education in the coming election. A returned conservative government would continue with its agenda to significantly cut funding to universities. It appears likely to continue with its plan to deregulate fees, albeit at a slower pace than previously proposed.

However the alternative that Labor seems to be proposing for higher education is based on a flawed assumption.

Pyne’s “dumped” package is still in play

Two years ago, the then federal Minister for Education, Christopher Pyne, proposed a radical set of changes for higher education funding including, among other things, a 20% cut to university base funding and full fee deregulation. While the latter received support from some institutions and Vice-Chancellors, there were very few supporters of the whole package.

Among those who did not support it were the ‘cross-benchers’, the independent and minor party members of the Parliament of Australia who have held the balance of power since elected in 2014. So, thankfully, the proposals were not passed.

The Turnbull government has since introduced Senate voting reforms which means the minor parties will not be able to swap preferences in order to secure Senate seats as they have done in the past, and there is less likelihood of a future cross bench like the current one. This is a shame for higher education, in my view, as these folk actually listened to the sector and public and responded accordingly.

Mr Pyne has now moved onto other responsibilities. I will remind you just before he moved on he told us he was “the fixer”.

The new and current Education Minister, Simon Birmingham, has released a discussion paper in lieu of budget measures.

However, a former senior Education bureaucrat, Mark Warburton, has pointed out in a piece in The Mandarin that Birmingham’s discussion paper includes some assumptions that were contained in Christopher Pyne’s 2014 budget, and abandons others. But is not completely clear what is in and what is out.

As Warburton says, it appears certain that the 20% cut to student subsidies under the Commonwealth Grant Scheme (CGS) remains in the budget and that the government has also made it clear that it remains committed to Pyne’s reforms.

He adds that the government has clearly announced two additions to the higher education package. The first is that there would be an additional one-year delay to the start date, until the beginning of 2018. The second is removing the full deregulation of fees.

But Warburton points out that the additional proposals in the minister’s discussion paper are not included or mentioned in the official budget papers. They are simply options in a discussion paper. And one of these options is the incremental introduction of fee deregulation. This is indeed not Christopher Pyne’s proposed one-step approach, however it is very much an introduction of higher education fee deregulation.

To sum up my concerns about the Turnbull Government’s plans for higher education

I’m worried about the potential impact of a 20% funding cut to the ability of some regional and other smaller universities to operate. The opportunities for regional, rural and remote students to access university education would surely be affected.

Fee deregulation, no matter how it is undertaken, will lead to fee increases. My concern is this will set up yet another hurdle for various non-traditional student cohorts, because of actual costs or the perception that university education is too expensive.

Labor’s intentions for higher education is based on a flawed assumption

But I’m also worried about Labor’s intentions around higher education. Kim Carr has indicated that Labor will fund universities differently in the future, pointing to the importance of students completing programs of study that they start. The logical follow-through is that universities will be funded for completions, and the get-paid-as-you-enrol-students-each-year arrangement will no longer apply.
The assumption behind this sort of initiative is that universities need to stop letting students drop out. As if we do let students drop out. In fact, universities employ a wide range of strategies to keep students.

The strategies we use include the following: pre-enrolment advising; enabling and preparatory programs; concurrent academic support; counselling services; options to change enrolment internally with credit should a student’s original choice not be suitable; scholarships and bursaries; equipment loan schemes; financial assistance with study related costs; student-friendly approaches to administration and interaction; monitoring and responding to at-risk sub-cohorts; proactive advice provision; mentoring from experienced senior students; transition programs; staff coordinators; strategic directions from Councils; senior appointments charged with improving retention. Significant funding is directed at all of these efforts.

We do our best, improving our efforts every single semester, following every piece of research and other robust evidence that guides our efforts. At my university we trial new ways to put in place preventions and interventions, and we closely monitor the effects of these.

Having tried as hard as we can to keep them, we ask students who finally do decide to leave why they are leaving and feed that back to relevant parts of the university to drive continuous improvement. We ask students who stay what helped them to stay and succeed and feed that back to relevant parts of the university to recognise and reward efforts that work. Many other universities do the same.

But when students drop out, it is often because of demographic and/or personal factors, rather than because universities have stood by and let them fall away. Demographic factors that can contribute to the likelihood of drop out include being: part-time; mature-age; online; first year; an articulator from VET; the first in family to attend tertiary study; from a low socioeconomic status background; Indigenous; and/or a student with a disability. There are increasing numbers and proportions of these students in a massified university system.

Personal factors include challenges related to students’ physical and mental health, their finances, their family responsibilities, their paid employment commitments, relationship issues they might experience and/or accidents or misadventure. And when these personal challenges intersect with demographic characteristics, the impact can be profoundly negative for the student and their study success, despite every effort by a university to assist and to encourage them to stay in study.

Punishing universities for enabling students who have the characteristics above to get a higher education seems perverse. The exclusive universities will do well and the elite will prosper. Is this really what Labor wants?

We need an effective higher education package that will benefit all Australians

I’m worried that cuts to funding, fee hikes, funding formula changes and the absence of a cross bench who will not do deals with major parties will leave students, their families, their communities, the professions, the economy and society worse off.

As I see it the policies on offer so far will mean that many Australians will be turned away from higher education and the benefits it brings both personally and to the nation as a whole.

Marcia Feb 2016Professor Marcia Devlin is a Professor of Learning Enhancement and Deputy Vice-Chancellor (Learning and Quality) at Federation University Australia. @MarciaDevlin

NO to research funding focused on advancing a few Australian unis in world rankings

Vice Chancellor Andrew Vann outlines a way research funding for universities can be used to benefit all Australians (not just the Go8) and how funding for the university sector could be sustainable without fee deregulation.

As Vice-Chancellor of Charles Sturt University, a regional university in NSW, I have some things to say about the recent developments in higher education. Like many others I welcome the decision by the Turnbull Government to delay any cuts to university funding and to consult widely on policy for higher education.

I also need to put on the record that I strongly oppose the proposal recently made by the Group of Eight universities for research funding to be tied to the Excellence in Research for Australia (ERA) assessment, which is largely based on research publications and research income figures. Current policy already directs most research funding towards the Group of Eight and we need to ensure that universities such as Charles Sturt, where we focus on applied research with practical benefits can also succeed. I believe it is not in the national interest to go down this path.

Fee deregulation

A succession of studies and reviews has concluded that the university sector is underfunded and fee deregulation would be one way to address this. There is already fee deregulation for international and domestic postgraduate students, so it is difficult to argue in principle that deregulation is fundamentally a bad thing. A cut in government funding to universities may also have helped the federal government with its budget problems but I don’t think it shows good long-term thinking.

There is, justifiably, strong opposition within the community for full fee deregulation. Impacts from the current package, now under review, would be highly inequitable. This is particularly troubling for Charles Sturt University students. I am thinking of those studying the agriculture and veterinary science courses specifically because costs for these courses would have risen considerably.

Regional students in all courses of study are already concerned about the costs of education, both in terms of the debt burden and living costs while they study. We also know that working mature-aged students have been more price-sensitive in other countries. Many mature-aged students in Australia are using the education available in regional universities as an opportunity to relaunch their careers.

We need to work our way towards a sustainable funding future for higher education and I believe this can be done.

Federal funding for research

For universities primarily concerned with the various world university rankings there is already a bias against applied research with local benefit. That’s because the reporting and evaluation systems, including the ERA ratings to which the Group of Eight wants even greater attention paid, are largely based on international research publications and research income figures.

This creates an aversion to taking research to the next step of intellectual property development and transfer, because it risks limiting publication and other traditional measures of success. I believe universities have a responsibility to ensure research meets the genuine needs of the nation and its industries. There needs to be active collaboration between universities, local communities and industries.

As I see it, to do this we should firstly better align competitive grants with industry needs through increased industry representation in assessment and review. There is also the opportunity to broaden the rural research and development corporation model of co-funding to other sectors. This model allows industry to have a say in guiding research priorities and directing public investment.

Equally important is encouraging people currently working in industry to undertake higher degrees by research and supporting entrepreneurial skills in for all students. These people are already keenly aware of their industry’s challenges and will apply that approach in research. They are also more likely to be able to apply the entrepreneurial skills that are needed to deliver successful commercialisation of research.

Federal government funding for university research should benefit all Australians and not be reduced to a factor in a world rankings race for a small number of universities.

How can we achieve sustainable funding?

If we want sustainable funding for higher education, it has to come from somewhere. The HELP income contingent loans scheme, recovered through the taxation system, is effectively a graduate tax. If we don’t want the tax burden to fall more heavily on graduates, by increasing student fees, there needs to be another plan.

Labor’s recent policy announcement commits to legislating per-student funding. It proposes to fund this through taxes on multinational companies, superannuation and abolishing the Emissions Reduction Fund. It is not yet clear what will emerge from the Government if the 20% cuts are off the table.

So it seems at the national level we might now have a debate about sustainable expenditure and taxation. In my view, this is the mature political debate that has been missing through most of the last decade.

Regional universities need to grow and innovate

Regional universities have a special mission to work with their communities and industries to help them grow and innovate. Charles Sturt University makes a huge contribution to the regional and rural workforce. I believe for the health of our communities we cannot afford to see regional students priced out of education or regional universities overlooked for research funding.

Regional universities are here, on the ground, and the type of engagement we offer can’t be replaced from the capital cities. Whatever direction is taken in fees and funding, it needs to allow regional universities to continue with their research and engagement mission.

Higher education provides a strong economic return and allows nations to flourish and prosper. If Australia is going to put this as its prime objective, regional universities must play a pivotal role.



Prof-Andrew-Vann copyProfessor Andrew Vann trained as a civil engineer and worked in engineering consultancy before completing a PhD in the Civil Engineering Systems Group at University of Bristol in 1994.

He lectured in structural engineering at University of Bristol prior to coming to Australia in 1996 where he took up a similar post in the Faculty of Engineering at Central Queensland University in Rockhampton. During this time he pursued research interests in structural monitoring and artificial intelligence as well as leading pedagogical change in moving the Bachelor of Engineering at CQU to a project-based format.

He held various senior academic and administrative roles at CQU before joining James Cook University in North Queensland in 2004 as Pro Vice-Chancellor Information Services and Technologies, subsequently Pro Vice Chancellor and, from 2008, was Senior Deputy Vice-Chancellor with responsibility for the Faculties and Teaching and Learning.

Professor Vann joined Charles Sturt University as Vice-Chancellor in December 2011.

He has held a number of board and community leadership roles, is a Fellow of the Australian Institute of Company Directors, a Fellow of the Australian Institute of Management, Associate Fellow of the Australian Rural Leadership Foundation and a Fellow of the Institute of Engineers Australia. (VC Vann is on Twitter )