How will university education deregulation effect equity and access? We ask NUS and two Vice-Chancellors
ABC, Sydney (7:30), 11 March 2015
Hosted by Leigh Sales
The National Union of Students argue tertiary education deregulation will be unfair to students while the Vice-Chancellors of two major universities discuss the issues of access and suggest funding is an issue that needs addressing.
LEIGH SALES, PRESENTER: Australia's top eight universities have taken the unprecedented step of using paid advertising to criticise part of the Government's bill to reform tertiary education. The Government's trying to get the Senate to pass a bill that'll cut public funding to universities, but at the same time offset that by deregulating the sector so that unis can charge what they want for degrees. The universities are mostly fine with that, but what has them outraged is that the Education Minister Christopher Pyne has tied funding for world-renowned research facilities to the passage of the bill.
The Senate's already rejected the legislation once and crunch time is looming for the Government's second attempt to get its plans through. If they pass, they'll be some of the biggest reforms to Australian universities ever.
To dig a little deeper into the issues, I was joined a short time ago by the vice chancellors of two of Australia's most prestigious institutions, Michael Spence from the University of Sydney and Glyn Davis from Melbourne University, as well as Rose Steele, the president of the National Union of Students.
Great to have you all with me. Let's start with the universities' campaign against research funding being pegged to the passage of the deregulation bill. Professor Davis, why is it not fair enough that all finances related to universities be contained in the one package?
GLYN DAVIS, VICE-CHANCELLOR, MELBOURNE UNI.: Because this set of initiatives, particularly the national cooperative research infrastructure scheme, extends far beyond the university sector. It includes CSIRO and many other research organisations. So to tie it to a bill about the funding of teaching in universities is just inappropriate.
LEIGH SALES: Dr Spence, what would be the effect if that research funding were cut?
MICHAEL SPENCE, VICE-CHANCELLOR, SYDNEY UNI.: Really quite disastrous. Australia has two resources: things in the ground, clever people. We do research really well. The future is about innovation and investment in core facilities is absolutely crucial for the nation's future.
LEIGH SALES: OK, let's talk about the package more broadly. Ms Steele, if I can come to you. If I could ask you to respond to a point that the Education Minister Christopher Pyne made recently that it's not unreasonable to ask students to pay about 50-50 on average towards the cost of their degrees, knowing that they get a significant private benefit from acquiring the degree.
ROSE STEELE, PRESIDENT, NATIONAL UNION OF STUDENTS: Absolutely. Look, NUS is really disappointed in this remark. We know under fee deregulation the Government could be contributing as low as 11 per cent to public funding of public universities and those degrees. So, we are basically saying that NUS is totally opposed to this package and rejects that statement. We want to make sure that we are talking about education as a priority for this nation and that is making sure that it is properly funded and that it has a high-quality for students in the future.
LEIGH SALES: What about his point though that students do get to enjoy, say, the salary of having a great degree and so therefore an enhanced contribution is fair enough?
ROSE STEELE: Absolutely. So, the - obviously there is a good private benefit to our education, but the public benefit is obviously there as well. We are saying that deregulation at the core of it is unfair for students and will see students be paying much higher fees in the future. We are asking that what do we want this higher education sector to look like in the future? And is that a system that will be cutting students out or is it a system where in 20 or 50 years, my children or students who are starting university today can see a future for higher education?
LEIGH SALES: I'll ask the vice-chancellors in a second to respond to some of what you've said there about whether it's going to be unfair or students, but if I can stick for the moment with what is a reasonable amount for students to pay. Dr Spence, Rose Steele said there that there's a public benefit that's involved in students having a degree as well as the private benefit they derive. Given that funding world-class research and teaching does benefit the whole country, why should it fall on the next generation of university students to bear that cost rather than students collectively?
MICHAEL SPENCE: Well, look, it arguably shouldn't and in fact I agree with Rose. My university was founded as a part of - as was Glyn's - as a part of the great 19th Century movement that education should be free, public and sector - and secular. But for 30 years, it's been the accepted wisdom of the - of Australian politics on both sides of politics that students should make a contribution because of the private benefit. And so the question is whether or not that contribution ought to be determined nationally on a sort of one-size-fits-all or on the local level responding to local conditions.
LEIGH SALES: Professor Davis, Dr Spence has taken us there back to a bit of a first principles discussion which is: do we live in a society that expects everyone to have fair access to a largely free education, and then if so, how is that funded? Where do you stand on that?
GLYN DAVIS: Everybody who works in university would have great sympathy for the point Rose puts, particularly generations that benefitted from different policy earlier on and are now seeing this generation and those who follow them expected to pay a larger cost. It's worth just stepping back and saying, "Well how did we get here?" We got here because in 2012 we decided as a nation to have a demand-driven system where any qualified student could get a place in university. And that's I think a really important national decision, one strongly supported by the university sector as by student organisations, but it's come at a very substantial cost. And successive governments, first the Labor government in the cuts of 2013, and now this government in the cuts announced in 2014, are saying that they can't or are not prepared to pay for the cost of the demand-driven system. And the crisis we now see building on the chronic underfunding that Michael's outlined is about: how do we pay for this system where we've seen huge expansion in students coming to universities? And that's the crux of the problem we now face.
LEIGH SALES: So Ms Steele, the Vice-Chancellor's come down on that question on the side of deregulation and being able to make their own decisions. What's your solution then to how you make up this funding shortfall?
ROSE STEELE: Well I - I mean, I agree that we have been - universities have been chronically underfunded and quality is under threat. However, we need to be having the question: is this about a system that will have access to students in the future and are we having - are we making education a priority for the future as well? I don't believe that this policy makes education access and equity a priority and I think we need to be having a bit of a tough discussion around: how are we going to make sure that under a demand-driven system we can make sure that there are future generations of students that are able to go to university? And that is so important for innovation, technology and growth and for the future generations of Australians as well.
LEIGH SALES: Let me put that to the vice chancellors. Professor Davis, would the public and students not be more comfortable with these reforms if universities were completely transparent right now about what degrees would cost if this current deregulation package passes?
GLYN DAVIS: But it's been impossible to do that because the other parts of the package haven't been clear and because we have to work through with our own communities about what is a reasonable thing? The package includes, for example, a requirement that 20 per cent of additional income go through to scholarships. Now, most of us - in fact I'm sure all of us support that and see that as great. But we now have some significant work to do inside the institution to work out how we would implement that and how we would make that fair because the risk always for scholarships is they go to the already talented and privileged and clearly the emphasis on scholarship here is to address the equity and access questions that Rose just outlined. But the point about a deregulated market is that every institution will have to make its own choices and will have to be public about those, and students, for the first time, will have a choice about what they pay, because at the moment, it's the same price at every institution in every part of the country And that means no student choice Is involved here and so it does change very fundamentally how we put these things together.
LEIGH SALES: Dr Spence, on the equity and access questions that Ms Steele raises, what guarantee do students have that universities won't opportunistically raise fees in a deregulated environment?
MICHAEL SPENCE: Well, I mean a number. The first thing is that we are genuinely committed to getting the brightest students wherever they come from. That's in everybody's interests. But the second is that for us, a lot of this is precisely about improving equity and access. We've done modelling that says if we were to charge somewhere between $15,000 and $16,000 a year for all undergraduate degrees, we could offer a third of our students some sort of financial support and indeed our most disadvantaged students would be better off because we could provide them with maintenance allowances of one kind or another to supplement Youth Allowance and we could do that in an environment where we could also work on the quality of their educational experience. Now there are other ways of ensuring equity and access. You can have price regulators like we do for the utilities, you can have equity regulators. It's certainly important that you make sure that there's not bad behaviour, but as Glyn says, one of the checks on bad behaviour is just going to be competitive pressure between different kinds of providers.
LEIGH SALES: Let me ask - sorry to interrupt you, but let me ask you, Ms Steele, do you feel at all reassured by what the vice-chancellors are suggesting, that competition will ensure that it is a fair and equitable system?
ROSE STEELE: Not at all and I would actually completely reject what our vice-chancellors have said today. I'm very concerned about what we're hearing. I think we are seeing that the modelling that has come out, it says that fees will rise and there has been no positive modelling over the last 10 months that have said that this will be positive for students or that says that fees will stay the same or even lower. We know that the scholarships that are being proposed by Mr Pyne as well are either going to be coming from students and that is predicated on the fact that fees will rise, and the other half of those scholarships are coming from abolishing pre-existing HEPP funding that create equity and access programs under the demand-driven system to make sure that students from low SES backgrounds, Indigenous students and women can stay at university and that their access rate is higher. Sorry, their success rate is higher.
LEIGH SALES: Let me ask you, Ms Steele, let's say that deregulation does go ahead. In that context, let's say that occurs. What safeguards would you like to see to ensure that disadvantaged students are still able to afford university degrees?
ROSE STEELE: First of all, we are calling on the Government to drop this policy and we are talking to the crossbench senators also to make sure that they block and oppose this. So I don't really want to be entering the debate that this has passed. However, we really want to be making sure that the discussion is being had. Students really haven't been a part of this debate at all over the last 10 months and we don't believe that there will be opportunities for access. If these scholarships are funded by students and if fees rise to $100,000, there really isn't a way to ensure that the university system will still be open and accessible for students in the future.
LEIGH SALES: Professor Davis, let me ask you to respond to that.
GLYN DAVIS: Well a number of things. The first: Rose says there's been no modelling that's positive and she's entirely right - let me say why. The Government is proposing a 20 per cent cut to the funds available for student teaching, so, there is no modelling that's going to get - make that a happy story. Prices will rise simply to deal with the cut that the Government is proposing alongside deregulation. And part of the reason vice-chancellors have supported deregulation, and in many cases quite reluctantly, is because a 20 per cent cut otherwise with no offset means that students get a much worse deal. They get more crowded classrooms, they get less quality time with academics and they don't get the quality of education that we all see as central. On the question about whether markets work in higher education, which has been much debated and is an arcane and technical subject, I know, it is simply worth noting that we already have two out of three parts of the higher education sector are deregulated; that is, graduate places and international places. And in neither international nor graduate education, which has been operating for 25 years, do you see extraordinary price increases or huge gouging of students or all of the things that people are confidently asserting will happen in the undergraduate market if it's deregulated. This seems to be an approach that works in practice, but apparently not in theory.
LEIGH SALES: Doctor Spence, what will happen if this package does not get through the Senate?
MICHAEL SPENCE: Well I think if this package does not get through the Senate, we need an alternative solution to the chronic underfunding problem. At my university we have the whole suite of significantly underfunded subjects, subjects like Agriculture, Vet Science, Medicine that are crucial to the nation's future. If this package doesn't - and that underfunding is putting quality pressure in other parts of the university, it's also meaning that we are overly dependent upon fee-paying students in the international and postgraduate area. If this package doesn't get through, then we need to find a way of meeting that particular funding crisis and the pressure that it's putting on quality teaching, the pressure that it's putting on research and the pressure that it's putting on the size and shape of our universities and our ability to make sure that the student cohort as a whole is one that's appropriate for Australia.
LEIGH SALES: We're out of time, unfortunately, but that was a very interesting discussion. Michael Spence, Glyn Davis, Rose Steele, thank you so much to all of you for coming in.
GLYN DAVIS: Thank you.
ROSE STEELE: Thank you.
MICHAEL SPENCE: Thank you.