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In the media: Nation’s largest universities say Dan Tehan’s reforms could cut their funding by stealth

Richard Ferguson – The Australian – 18 August 2020

The nation’s most prestigious universities have rejected the Morrison government’s higher education reforms, warning the proposals could cut their funding by stealth without delivering any of the job outcomes promised by Education Minister Dan Tehan.

In a submission to the government’s reform legislation, the Group of Eight — which represents the country’s most high-profile vice-chancellors — said the proposals were “inexplicable”, would “lead to perverse outcomes” and handed too much power to the federal education bureaucracy.

The legislation for the Job Ready Graduate Package does not include a promised $705m transition fund for universities, a $900m fund for science, technology and maths research, or the indexing of government grants.

The Go8 says the lack of protections give Mr Tehan the power to unilaterally cut government grants to courses.

“With the current legislation, the bulk of an institution’s funding … for higher education courses may also now be cut at the discretion of the minister,” the submission states. “The Go8 objects to this unilateral use of power for a sector which delivers the next generation of highly qualified employees … the nation’s economy cannot recover from (the COVID-19) pandemic without a healthy higher education sector working in partnership with government.”

Mr Tehan announced significant changes to university fees in June, with the government hoping to incentivise enrolments — in agriculture, maths, nursing, teaching and science courses — by cutting course fees by up to 62 per cent. But students ­studying humanities would face price hikes of up to 113 per cent.

The Go8 submission, written by the organisation’s chief executive, Vicki Thomson, said proposed changes would mean humanities students would pay more than those doing medicine and dentistry ­degrees.

“Some of Australia’s most vital sectors during COVID have relied on students, such as social workers and mental health support, whose degrees fall in this very high student cost and low government support cluster. The changes are questionable,” Ms Thomson wrote. “The draft legislation … leaves the sector ever more vulnerable to the nation’s worsening economy.”

The Australian reported in June that universities would be paid less to teach courses such as maths and engineering under the overhaul — despite those programs being promoted as post-pandemic job creators.

Universities currently receive $28,958 a year for each science course enrolment, made up of $9698 paid by the student through the HECS-HELP loan scheme and $19,260 from the commonwealth. Under the new system, however, students will contribute $7700 and the commonwealth will pay $16,500, leaving universities with $4758 less revenue for each science student enrolled.

Frank Larkins, a researcher at Melbourne University’s Centre for Higher Education, said there were conflicting messages for universities. “Every university will have a different reaction, but these changes are almost disguising a cut in funding for some of these courses the government is promoting,” he said at the time.

The Go8 submission follows increasing disquiet among regional universities – which were largely supportive of Mr Tehan’s plans – about the proposed changes.

Regional Education Minister Andrew Gee is already demanding changes to the legislation, including for the cost of social work and mental health degrees to be cut.

Labor, the Greens, Centre Alliance and newly independent South Australian senator Rex Patrick are either opposed to the legislation, to be introduced to parliament this month, or are calling for significant changes.

In particular, the Regional Universities Network submission raises concerns about plans to remove access to HECS for students who fail to complete 50 per cent of their first-year subjects as “too prescriptive”. “While the objective of the proposed measure is reasonable, RUN would not support reducing the autonomy of universities to determine their own student progression requirements,” it reads.

Mr Tehan told The Australian: “The draft legislation is open for public consultation.”

Universities already face a financial hit of up to $4bn and the loss of 21,000 jobs in the next year due to the loss of revenue from foreign students due to the pandemic.

The Go8 submission labels the changes to course funding “inexplicable” and claims the sector was never consulted over the HECS-HELP reforms.

The universities are also concerned the new bill gives the government power to call for audits of universities that go beyond the remit of the current higher education regulator. “These measures have the potential to disadvantage students, introduce additional red tape for universities and undermine the successful currently legislated proportionate and risk-based approach to regulation of the higher education system,” the submission says. “The measures … have been introduced without any consultation with the sector.”

The Innovative Research Universities, representing outer-metropolitan institutions such as Murdoch University in Perth and La Trobe University in Melbourne, have also written to Mr Tehan and called for the student fee changes as they stand to be scrapped.