Vice-Chancellor Spence grilled at Academic Board

Students have few other opportunities to take the Vice-Chancellor to task in person.

Students questioned Vice Chancellor Michael Spence about how the University will respond to huge cuts to university funding in the 2017 Federal Budget at a meeting of the Academic Board on Tuesday, May 2.

The proposed changes will increase the cost of most degrees and force students to pay back their HECS debt earlier as the repayment threshold is lowered to $42,000 annually.

The day before the meeting, Education Minister Simon Birmingham attacked the salaries of university vice chancellors, of which Spence’s is the highest.

According to the Australian Financial Review, Spence receives $1,385,000 per year, which is more than the salaries of the prime minister, most senior public servants, and the UK’s best remunerated vice chancellor, Oxford University’s Louise Richardson.

When  asked if the University would consider directing funds from salaries to mitigate the effects of the cuts on students, Spence said, “the University has a contractual obligation to its staff to pay them” what they have been promised, but that “certainly we will be looking at what we need to do to mitigate the effects on students”.

He also said the  story about his pay “was directly fed from the minister’s office to the press” to create a “smokescreen” for Birmingham’s cuts.

Of course, this was itself an attempt to throw the focus back onto Birmingham’s cuts just as Birmingham had tried to deflect from them — the facts remain that Spence is paid a large salary and that Birmingham is proposing huge cuts to higher education.

The main points Spence emphasised throughout the meeting were the impact of cost of living on students and that “Anything that costs students more without benefitting universities is in principle [bad] policy”.

Honi also asked if he thought lowering the HECS repayment threshold would worsen the hardships already faced by low-SES students as a result of the high cost of living in Sydney. He responded, “I think beginning to repay at $42,000 is too soon”.

He raised particular concerns for students he described as being in a “poverty trap … where they don’t qualify for financial assistance but for whom life is still really difficult”.

Yet Spence did not specify what he believed would be a reasonable level of income for graduates to begin repaying their loans.

In much the same way, Universities Australia and the Group of Eight have criticised funding cuts, while remaining largely silent on the repayment threshold, which will hurt students most.

Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences representative Georgia Mantle asked whether the University would look into increasing scholarships and bursaries for students to mitigate the increased financial burden, as it had said it would if fee deregulation was introduced.

In response, Spence said, “the University will be worse-off financially under this budget,” unlike under fee deregulation.

He said earlier in the meeting, “Our more disadvantaged students would have been better off” under fee deregulation because it would, in some dubious logic, have provided more money for scholarships.