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Unis lobby to deregulate fees

The Group of Eight submission reveals a push for revenue, writes Nick Gowland.

Sydney University Vice-Chancellor Michael Spence stated that it would be “not unfair” to both scrap the Commonwealth-supported places in and uncap tuition for courses like Law, Economics, Commerce and Accounting.

The comment was made in relation to a submission to the Federal Government’s ongoing review of demand-driven university funding made by the Group of Eight (Go8), a lobby group composed of the Vice-Chancellors from the leading eight Australian universities. The review is being conducted by economist Andrew Norton, and former Liberal Minister for Education Dr David Kemp.

The submission, made in December 2013 but released to the public last week, argues that research quality in Australian universities declined after the influx of students to uncapped university places was not adequately met by increases in funding. The submission contains a slew of recommendations aimed at balancing funding by deregulating tertiary education.

The most controversial proposal is to allow universities the option to forgo Commonwealth-supported places (CSPs) and uncap tuition fees for courses in law, commerce, economics and accounting where graduates “generally enjoy high private returns”.

Under the current demand-driven funding regime, the Government subsidises fees for all domestic students enrolled in undergraduate bachelor degrees. In the case of the ‘Band 1’ subjects named in the submission, the Commonwealth subsidises 16 per cent of tuition fees. Student foot the rest of the bill either up-front or under the HECS-HELP deferred debt scheme.

However, if CSPs were to be removed, this private contribution would rise by around $2000 a year. Further, the result of uncapping tuition fees would be a 30-40 per cent increase in base course fees, the submission projects. If Band 1 courses were to be effectively privatised as suggested, the HECS debt for a three-year Bachelor of Commerce degree would increase by 53 per cent, from $29,934 to $45,750.

Although Spence maintained any increase in private contributions would require Senate approval, he indicated that he endorsed the “broad thrust” of the Go8 recommendations.

University of Sydney SRC Education Officer Ridah Hassan has slammed the submissions as further evidence of universities prioritising dividends over quality of education.

“I think it’s clear that universities these days operate as businesses and view their degrees as commodities to be sold. If they get away with privatising some degrees, it will give them confidence to start privatising others so it’s pretty bad for all students,” she said.

Echoing the argument of an SRC submission to the review last year, Hassan cautioned that any increase in deferred debt would be a disincentive for lower socioeconomic status students to study particular courses. She also rejected the Go8’s suggestion that privatisation would increase the quality and accessibility of tertiary education.

“The people who run the Go8 universities get millions of dollars a year collectively. There is plenty of money to make all degrees in the university accessible, but it’s not being distributed in an equitable way,” she said.

Sydney University Law Society Equity Officer Natalie Czapski criticised the Go8’s assumption that graduates of Band 1 courses will earn more and thus be in a position to pay off increased debt. She claimed that the current job market for law graduates was poor, and the “damaging” Go8 recommendations would “box people into going after high paid corporate careers” at the expense of community justice and law reform.

Czapski said that the assumption was especially problematic considering most high-earning law graduates put hours of unpaid work into clerkships, which are simply not an option for many low SES students.

“I think it would be a shame if accessibility to the justice system and the people actually working in it came from higher means or a particular background,” she said.

Dr Kemp and Mr Norton’s report on demand driven funding will be released to the public later this year.