Charivari is a publication of the National Alliance for Public Universities (NAPU), a group formed in 2014 when the Australian government tried to reduce public funding to universities and allow them to set their own fees. The successful campaign against deregulation galvanised university staff and students, and the scale of public opposition to the proposals demonstrated that higher education had become a mass concern perhaps for the first time. As unemployment and job insecurity rise so young people rely on post-school education as never before. ‘Qualifications’ that might once have guaranteed secure professional employment may simply now lead to years of low paid precarious work in cities where the cost of housing is spiralling out of control. In these circumstances there is a grim irony associated with making students pay more for degrees. It adds to the popular sense of intergenerational injustice. Young people ask why a group of privileged politicians, most of whom enjoyed free university education, is lumbering them with more debt.
ANU Vice Chancellor Brian Schmidt once described the university’s School of Culture, History and Language (CHL) as the ‘jewel in the crown’, but in 2014 it was placed under review. CHL staff supervise 180 PhD students, have won several ARC grants (in 2015 there were four ARC Laureate Fellows and six Future Fellowships) and have achieved ERA ratings of 4 and 5 across the relevant disciplines. This was not enough to save them from the managerial axe.
CHL was to be the test case for a new University wide review policy. As management oscillated between financial and academic rationales for the review, the estimated deficit of the school likewise varied: sometimes the shortfall was estimated to be less than half a million dollars, at other times several million. In 2015, the university commissioned an expensive external review who found that this excellent school had yet to settle from previous re-structures and recommended that it should endure no more. Despite this in late 2015 deeply unsettling rumours began to circulate about staff cuts as high as 60%.
Helmets off! Remove your live ammunition from the chamber, disassemble the barricades; run the flag of the public universities up the pole – deregulation has surrendered!
Murmurings last week that the new education minister Simon Birmingham was considering a modified fee deregulation model did not materialise in the budget papers. Rather than concrete policy, the budget includes an ‘options paper’, Driving Innovation, Fairness and Excellence in Higher Education, an entirely dull collection of words that appears to restore Higher Education policy to tinkering and empty rhetoric. Birmingham’s vision (his word) is of ‘a system in which universities are able to reflect and respond to the demands of students and employers and to leverage their research strengths to position themselves in a global context’. (A human being actually wrote that…)
With the release of the 2016 federal budget on May 3rd, the deregulation of university fees is once again rearing its head. While the coalition has reportedly shelved deregulation in the short term, it is unlikely that the government has abandoned the idea altogether. Scared of coming under attack by Labor in advance of a possible election, the coalition has gone as minimal as possible in order to keep deregulation in their back pocket. In the interim, the Turnbull government is proposing to cut funding and charge students more.
Behind the scenes, education minister Simon Birmingham is reportedly considering a number of options in order to “refine and improve” the deregulation proposal that has twice failed to garner parliamentary support. One option on the table would allow universities to raise fees by as much as 25%. Does this signal the death knell of former education minister Pyne’s proposal to allow for unfettered fee deregulation, a plan that would have permitted universities to charge domestic students the same amount as international students?
The Federal Minister for Education Simon Birmingham is a slippery character. When he appeared on the ABC’s 7:30 Report pre-budget to discuss the Liberal Government’s policy on tertiary education, his strategy was not surprising, but it was illogical. Presenter Leigh Sales started with the following statement:
The annual cost to the Federal Government of subsidising university degrees for Australian students is set to skyrocket over the next decade… an ABC Freedom of Information investigation has found the Government is preparing to write off billions of dollars in [university student loan] payments as the …bad debt soars.
Minister Birmingham responded by blaming the previous Labor government for policy changes that led to a blow-out in the cost of loans for vocational education students. This is something quite separate from the income-contingent concessional loan system for university students. So when asked about oranges he spoke of lemons.